Editorial 4 - Safe School Environment
The Star Tribune, a Casper Wyoming Newspaper carries a story about a speech given by Judy Shepard. Mrs. Shepard, mother of slain gay college student Matthew Shepard, spoke at a conference of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. In the article, Judy Shepard is cited as telling the administrators no child can learn in an atmosphere of fear. The entire article can be read on the Star Tribune web site.
Mrs. Shepard made a good point. Students need to feel safe and valued to have the optimal conditions for learning. When students are in fear for their lives or face constant bullying and teasing, they are not in a good position to learn. How can can one think about balancing Chemistry equations when one is afraid of being severely beaten up after school?
Schools are supposed to be safe environments for students. The teachers, support staff and administrators are entrusted with the safety and development of students for about six hours a day. When schools fail to provide a safe, nurturing environment for students, they have failed students, parents and society. In their quasi-parenting roles, schools are responsible for helping students develop physically, intellectually, socially and spiritually.
The emotional damage done to students who face constant verbal and physical bullying cannot be easily understood. The effects can be deep and long-term.
The potential of queer students is stunted when they are afraid of being exposed, of losing friends, of becoming outcasts, of being beaten up or killed. Optimum learning cannot take place when how to stay safe and stay alive becomes more important than learning algebra, history or biology. One cannot wonder how many queer students missed important educational and career opportunities, because they dropped out of high school or did not get high enough grades to enter competitive professional college and university programs. A person who has a high-paying professional job may pay more money in income tax than a minimum-wage employee earns. Society cannot afford to let queer students take second and third class jobs, because school was a traumatic experience for them.
Schools need to promote a safe environment for gay and transgendered students. To develop a safe environment, the tradition of bullying needs to stop. Ending the climate of bullying must start at the very top. Superintendents and principals should not bully staff. School employees cannot provide a safe environment for children when they do not work in a safe environment themselves. Teachers and support staff need to stop using verbal bullying and insults to maintain order in the classrooms. Staff from principals right down to the janitors need to take courses to help them learn about how to meet the needs of queer students. A zero tolerance policy regarding bullying, teasing and homonegative comments needs to be enforced.
Some resources that can be of assistance to people wishing to create a safe school environment can be found on the Stop Hate 2000 web site.