Keeping It Real: Schools, safety and Swiss cheese

By : Nathan Bruemmer
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School’s back! Teachers and students all across the country are settling into their new routines. For our LGBTQ+ youth, school can be one of the most influential communities alongside family and/or a faith-based community. That influence can be positive or it can be negative. 


In my position as an executive director of an LGBTQ+ youth organization, I applaud all the families who accept and celebrate the beautiful identities of our next generation. But I continue to worry about our youth who are in less accepting circumstances – either at home, in their faith-based community and especially at school. I worry because I know the statistics far too well. I have witnessed the statistics happen. 


According to the 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, our LGB youth in Florida are almost three times as likely to be bullied at school and more than twice as likely to be bullied online as their heterosexual peers.  Additionally, LGB youth are almost twice as likely to avoid attending school because they feel unsafe. These statistics haven’t always been measured, but this experience is one that many of us are far too familiar with.  This is our reality today, but it need not be so for future LGB youth. Many of us are working to make this shared experience a thing of the past. 


As you well know, this is not an easy task.  However, while we may not be able to as easily confront or influence the negative experiences of our LGBTQ+ youth in unaccepting homes or in unaccepting faith-based communities, we can work to ensure that every school is safe for all of its students. With the advent of sophisticated and supportive advocacy organizations, collaborative efforts across school districts, and local progressive communities, more of our LGBTQ+ youth are in school districts with affirming policies and staff than ever before.  But so many are not. Unfortunately, we have adopted a “Swiss cheese” approach to legal protections for equality across our state and our country.  Even more unfortunate, we have taken the same “Swiss cheese” approach to our schools being safe for our LGBTQ+ students. 


It’s not a surprise that when new families move into the area that my organization ALSO Youth serves that many call to find out what the best schools are in our district for LGBTQ+ youth. They want to know how our district supports LGBTQ+ youth.


Families know that policies and protections for their LGBTQ+ children vary district by district. Swiss cheese has a lot of holes. Isn’t it time that safety and security for all identities on school campuses are ensured? 


As a former teacher, I remember the nervous energy when a same-sex couple would walk into a parent-teacher conference with me. I couldn’t wait to put them at ease. I remember the dialogue around getting school districts to allow Gay-Straight Alliances and I remember my joy and relief when they were finally allowed in my district. 


I also remember the personal interactions with students. I remember the students who said they wanted to “study” in my room before school, at lunch, or after school.   I always allowed it—I knew they were really just looking for a safe space. I remember the poignant and sometimes painful notes that students left on my desk. These notes shared their truths and revealed experiences from home or on campus.  Sometimes they asked for help, but mostly they were simply seeking reassurance, acceptance or a little hope. 


It does get better. The slogan is real. But personally, in those horrible moments as a vulnerable student when I most needed hope and reassurance – it never occurred to me that life would get better. I never knew that it ‘could’ get better until it ‘did’ get better. Would I have believed an adult if they had tried to persuade me? Maybe. Do our youth believe us today? I certainly hope so. I have to hope so. For their own wellbeing they must, but trust can be difficult to build. Our kids will only trust us IF they see us, all of us, believing our own rhetoric AND working together for them. Do I do this work partially because I am fighting for that 14-year-old version of myself? Hell yes, I am! I have to!

We must be vocal. We need to all hold our schools accountable. Every single district needs to implement inclusive LGBTQ+ policies. School boards determine policies, but voters determine school boards. Unfortunately, local elections continue to see low voter turnout. 


Once the school board adopts a policy, the district administrations create procedures to enact or enforce the approved policy. The district then communicates these procedures to principals and assistant principals in order to promulgate them to the schools. The principals are then responsible for following those procedures to ensure they are abiding by the new policy.   


Sounds good, but who did we elect to those school boards? Do they know the needs of our LGBTQ+ students? Are they listening to the teachers who speak up about the needs of our youth? Are they listening to the parents of LGBTQ+ youth? Are they hearing directly from those students? Do they create channels that allow for open lines of communication? Have they built the trust with all these cohorts that would foster a desire to openly communicate?  


If we truly want to make the slogan “it gets better” a reality, then we must dedicate ourselves and commit to a multi-prong approach that begins on the ground floor.  This approach begins with us.  It starts by informing ourselves about our local school boards and the school policies they implement.  It grows when we engage with local leaders and listen to the needs of our community.


We must demand this from ourselves and from all our advocacy organizations – whether local, statewide or national. We must hold our school districts accountable. We must speak out. We must vote.

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