Noelle Swan

Mass. GLBT Teens Still Face Disproportionate Risks in Public Schools

In Civil Rights, Social Issues, Uncategorized on June 29, 2012 at 12:05 pm

This article first was published online and in print by Spare Change News on June 29, 2012.

Photo Credit: Flickr/Made Underground

Through tears, Roger Bourgeois described an evening when his high school-age son sat him and his wife down at the kitchen table to tell them why their life would be better if he were dead because he was broken. As they tried to assure him that things would get better and that they could get him help, Bourgeois says his son took a bare light bulb in his hand and crushed it between his fingers. “With blood dripping down his hand he asked us if we could fix the light bulb.”

Bourgeois told the Massachusetts Commission on Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Youth that his son survived high school, thrived in college, and is preparing to work on humanitarian issues in the Dominican Republic. However, he said that should not let the school system off the hook.

Bourgeois told of his son’s school days, when his peers decided that he was different and must be gay. They proceeded to torment him for 10 years, fueling a deep depression and an eventual suicide attempt. “They [the school] should have known what was going on on that playground.”

Calling Governor Deval Patrick’s 2010 anti-bullying law a step in the right direction, Bourgeois added that as a school administrator he knows that school systems are often overwhelmed with the number of trainings they are required to offer teachers. Without a strong message from the state emphasizing anti-bullying training for teachers as a priority, he worries that such trainings might be poorly attended or fall by the wayside.

Despite increased media attention and public education campaigns aimed at reducing bullying, a recent survey of high school students confirms that in Massachusetts, gay, lesbian, and bisexual teens (transgender was not included in the survey) continue to face many dangerous hurdles.

Gay students are still three times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers. Nearly 10 percent of gay students reported having skipped school during the previous month due to feeling unsafe on the way to or at school. Twice as many gay students reported being bullied and being threatened with a weapon as their peers.

These results may come as a surprise to many in Massachusetts, which has a national reputation for being gay-friendly. Several openly gay politicians have been elected public office at the local, state, and federal level. In 2004, the Massachusetts legislature was the first to legalize gay marriage. Governor Deval Patrick even marched in this year’s gay pride parade in Boston.

In 1992, Republican Governor William F. Weld first formed the Governor’s Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth, the first of its kind in the nation, to address the health and well being of gay and lesbian youth in Massachusetts. When Governor Mitt Romney (R) dissolved the Governor’s commission in 2006, the legislature continued it by legislative enactment.

In June, the commission held its first public hearings in two decades at the State House and Holyoke Community College.

State Representative Elizabeth A. Malia (D-Boston), chair of the Joint Committee on Mental Health and Substance Abuse and the first openly gay state representative in Massachusetts in 20 years, told the commission at the State House that she is proud to be from the state with the first commission devoted to GLBT youth. However, she added that she is alarmed and embarrassed that suicide rates among GLBT youth have not gone down since the formation of the commission.

Governor Patrick expressed similar concerns in his testimony before the commission saying that he finds the rates of bullying, violence, and suicide confronting GLBT youth “troubling.”

“All young people deserve the chance to feel welcome and supported in our schools and communities,” he told the commission before adding, “Yes, we have more work to do.”

Several dozen students, parents, teachers, advocates, and politicians testified before the commission about cracks in the school system.

Starry Neptune Shihuin testified that she had to transfer high schools three times because students bullied her for being different. “I internalized everything. I didn’t tell my family or my friends what was going on.” She said that the weight of her struggles drove her to consider suicide.

At her third high school in Charlestown, she says she attempted to start a Gay Straight Alliance at the school but soon abandoned the club due to low participation and harassment from other students. She said her only support came from her art teacher, the only openly gay teacher in the school.

While Massachusetts schools are more supportive of gay teachers than they are in some states, it can be difficult for them to be openly gay in front of the students, said Jonathan Nardi-Williams, a middle school guidance counselor.

When he recently married a man, he chose not to tell his co-workers right away, though he since has come out as gay to many of them. Although he has legally added his husband’s last name to his own, to his students he is simply Mr. Nardi. “I worry constantly that students will find me out.”

Nardi-Williams suggested that integrating GLBT people and issues into all areas of the curriculum would go a long way in creating a comfortable and safe environment for gay students and teachers, a request that was echoed by several other speakers.

“Public high school curriculum must include GLBT issues,” said Brandon Sides, an openly gay football player who graduated from Acton-Boxboro High School this June. He and several other speakers suggested that a gay literature should be included in English curriculum and gay rights explored in history class. “GLBT students aren’t necessarily involved in the GSA or may not have gay teachers, but they all have to go to English class,” said Sides.

“Schools are afraid to take that route on their own,” said Nardi-Williams, urging the commission to push for a state directive mandating that GLBT issues be included across all subject areas throughout the public school system adding, “Students say they were taunted as early as fourth and fifth grade.”

Nardi-Williams said that he believes that integrating GLBT issues into core classes such as science, English, and history would demonstrate to all students what it means to be a GLBT person, simultaneously helping to normalize GLBT culture and providing role models for GLBT youth.

The commission will consider the testimony when forming recommendations for state policies, programs, and resources.

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