Sexual politics & schools
My service on my local school board taught me many lessons that I never expected — and sometimes didn’t want — to learn. Quite a few of those lessons involved bullying of students at school, near school, or on the Internet when they were away from school. None of them were pretty stories.
The one that sticks in my mind most, however, was the story of a high school boy who could not use the school bathroom in peace because other boys thought he was gay. This boy dashed home during the lunch hour during his entire high school career just so he could use the toilet at home. Not once, his mother told me, had he ever eaten lunch with friends during high school.
That seems like such a small incident when you think that it happened on one day. But when you consider that this happened roughly 700 times during this boy’s adolescence, then it becomes a different situation entirely.
Do gay students need advocates? Absolutely, they do. Are they alone in needing to feel safe at school? Unfortunately, they are not. One study estimated that about 15% of all students were bullied during their school career. A recent survey by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) revealed that 91% of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) middle school students said they had been verbally harassed and 59% had been physically harassed because of their sexual orientation. Although the population of LGBT students is relatively small compared to the rest of the school population, those numbers suggest to me they are being disproportionately targeted by other students.
That’s one reason I was impressed when I learned that Secretary Arne Duncan had appointed Kevin Jennings, founder of GLSEN, to the post of assistant deputy secretary overseeing the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools.
Now Jennings has predictably become the newest target in a bullying campaign by the anti-everything crowd. A few days ago, 53 Republicans sent President Obama a letter calling for Jennings’ dismissal because he “played an integral role in promoting homosexuality and pushing a pro-homosexual agenda in America’s schools.” The letter writers claimed that Jennings lacked the necessary qualifications to serve in the safe schools job.
That’s not what I see. What I see is a man who has devoted his professional life to improving the quality of life for thousands of American students. Through GLSEN and his other work, Jennings has helped focus the discussion about gay students where it belongs: ensuring that all students feel safe and protected in schools. Creating a civil and respectful atmosphere in school should not be a political issue.
As for me, I’ll judge Jennings on the merits of his work, not on any alleged past misdeeds or errors of youth. Will he be a bureaucrat who talks a lot and achieves little? My hope is that he’ll be an educator who elevates the discussion and challenges all of us to create civil and respectful classrooms and schools where all of our children can learn in safety.