Kevin Jennings, executive director of Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network, led a forum Monday night to help school administrators and teachers handle situations when students are harassed or mistreated because of their sexuality.
"Specific problems need specific solutions - handle them the same as race issues. Often the teachers are a part of the problem because they don't know how to handle them," Jennings told a packed auditorium of counselors, lawyers, members of organizations and students who attended the forum at Indian Hills Junior High School in Clive. The forum was titled "Making our Schools Safe for GLBT (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender) Students."
The forum, which was hosted by the GLBT Youth in Iowa Schools Task Force, a coalition of educators, civil-rights lawyers and gay-rights advocates in Iowa, included a panel of professionals and an openly gay student who outlined things teachers and administration could do to improve the learning environment for GLBT students.
Heather Sawyer, an attorney with Lambda Legal, a national organization committed to recognizing the civil rights of GLBT citizens, addressed the legalities of various situations.
Sawyer said in most cases administrators feel the best way to handle harassment of GLBT students is to remove them from the situation, such as transferring them to another school or class.
"That's an absolutely inappropriate response," she told the group. "The solution is not to remove the victim."
Instead she said the teacher should discipline the students who caused the harm, just as the teacher would if students made racial slurs.
The panelists agreed that teachers and administrators should offer welcoming environments for GLBT students, otherwise they would feel excluded and lag behind in their studies.
Roosevelt High School student Annie Myers, 16, attended the forum. She said although it was informative, she wasn't sure how much it will help.
Roosevelt is one of the few metro-area schools that has gay-straight alliances.
Karen Downing, an English teacher and sponsor of the gay-straight alliance at Valley High School, said forums and alliances are needed to make teachers and students aware of the issues.
"It's raising awareness, and anything that raises awareness and solutions can help," she said.