April 07, 2009

GLSEN's Jennings: Create climate to support gay students

Source: RA 2009

There are lots of closets in our schools, for all the students who feel marginalized, bullied and harassed - and we need to do more to create a school climate of respect for all.

That was the compelling message from Kevin Jennings, founder of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, who educated like the teacher he was and advocated like the lobbyist he is.

He looked out at the huge audience at the RA in Buffalo and asked how many educators had received training in how to support gay students. About three hands went up.

"We have not been given the skills to know how to deal with this new generation," Jennings said.

He cited a poll showing at least 6 percent of juniors and seniors define themselves as gay.

That's a conservative number, since many students would be hesitant to disclose that information to a pollster.

"You may not know who they are," Jennings said. "But that means at least one out of 16 kids, or at least one gay student in every classroom."

Calling it a crisis, "not a special interest," Jennings showed statistics demonstrating rampant bullying and harassment of gay students, which, in turn, can lead to academic problems, drug use and suicide.

He said he's counting on NYSUT and its members to push the new Democratic majority in the Senate to approve the state's Dignity for All Students Act, which would require clear school district policies and professional development.

Surrounding states such as Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Jersey have passed similar laws, he said.

"For nine years, we've been pushing it in New York, but the Senate has refused to go along," he said.

"With a new majority, now's the time to pass the legislation so every student in New York will feel safe and protected."