Safe Spaces

In his suicide note, 19-year-old Eric Borges wrote “My pain is not caused because I am gay. My pain was caused by how I was treated because I am gay”. The Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network (GLSEN) has some ideas on how to mitigate that kind of unnecessary suffering in our schools. It’s called “A Safe Space”, and today, it is On Our Radar.

It starts with a sticker. It might be on the counseling office door. On a classroom window. On a teacher’s desk, or the corner of a lectern. The words on the sticker say “A Safe Space”, but what the sticker says to a kid who is being tormented by bullies is “You are not alone. I will listen to you. I will believe you. I will protect you. I will help you survive.”

If it sounds hyperbolic to discuss the “survival” of kids in junior high, you haven’t been paying attention. The suicide rate for LGBT teens is alarming and escalating. So is the drop out rate. So is the homeless rate.

The ‘Safe Space” campaign is the brainchild of GLSEN, the group that brought us “No Name Calling Week” and those wonderful “Think Before You Speak” Public Service announcements with Wanda Sykes and Hillary Duff, that aired during the Super Bowl. GLSEN is an organization dedicated to making schools a safe, welcoming, inclusive refuge for all our children.

In an attempt to reverse the rising number of LGBT teens committing suicide as a reaction to the relentless bullying they often suffer in school, GLSEN acted. They joined with corporate sponsors like Pepsi and ATT and solicited the participation of the public. Their goal is to put a “Safe Space Toolkit” in every junior high and high school in the country.

Ironically, I found out more about what is in the “toolkit” by reading about why the Right Wing hates it than I did from the GLSEN website. For instance, the Right Wing blog, “CitizenLink”, reports the Safe Space toolkit includes a checklist of policies schools can adopt, like a unisex dress code, a unisex bathroom, and inclusion of same-sex couples at school dances. All of those things seem to me, the typical well meaning but clueless straight woman, like easy to implement, common sense ideas. They seem to have sent the Right Wing around the bend. In response to this advice to teachers in the GLSEN Toolkit:

 “Let the student know that the conversation is confidential and that you won’t   share the information with anyone else, unless they ask for your help.” 

CitizenLink said this:

“Forget about the parents—but “be prepared to refer them to a sympathetic counselor, a hotline, your school’s GSA or a LGBT youth group or community center. In other words, teachers are supposed to send your kids, without your knowledge, to left-wing, radical gay-activist groups in the community who will most likely tell them that sexual experimentation is normal and to be expected.”

If there ever was a time for the word “flabbergasted”. When did sending a depressed kid for psychological counseling become a controversial act? And when did our schools become ground zero for a Left – Right political battle?

Reading their reaction, I found I was pessimistic that the Right Wing will allow the Safe Space toolkit, or any program like it that stresses empathy and inclusion, to be implemented in our schools anytime soon. I get the distinct feeling that saving the lives of LGBT teens is not on the Conservative agenda. I’m not even sure it’s over the line to say the opposite has become true.  In his article in “Pediatrics” Columbia University psychologist Mark Hatzenbuehler unambiguously reports gay teens attempt suicide more often in politically conservative areas than in districts where schools have programs supporting gay rights. Any group, indeed any parent, who would disregard this evidence has lost sight of what is in the “best interest of the child”. They are not a group to trust making decisions about school policy. But above all else I know this:

Doing nothing means despondent children will continue to take their own lives.

According to the GLSEN website: “Some students say they feel safer at school when one very simple yet critical sign is present: the ability to identify a supportive educator. LGBT students who can identify supportive educators are less likely to skip school out of fear for their safety, report higher grade point averages and have greater educational aspirations.”

So maybe that has to be the place to put my hope. Let it start with a sticker. A signpost. A lifeline. Let it start with a kid who needs help enabled to find a teacher who is willing to give it. If the Right Wing never allows the “Safe Space” program to advance any further than that rainbow sticker that leads one hurting kid to ask for help, I will still count GLSEN’s outreach to be an unmitigated success.

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