Tragedy has a horrifying way of bringing things back to the basics-–and 2009 began and ended with tragedy. A year that began with the first anniversary of Larry King's murder at school and then brought news of the suicides of Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover
and Jaheem Herrera, moved toward its end with three horrendous events in November: the brutal murders of Jason Matteson, Jr. in Maryland, and Jorge Steven López Mercado
in Puerto Rico, and the assault on 16-year-old Jayron Martin
in Houston by a student wielding a metal pipe. Jayron had alerted school officials to the danger he faced,
and the specific threat on that day, and they failed to protect him.
The basic facts are these: We still live in a society where homophobia is a potent fuel for violence, harassment and social aggression, and where many studentsare not safe at school if they are or are perceived to be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. I know that you have heard this from GLSEN before. As the organization that has focused on these issues in schools for two decades, we live among constant reminders of these problems. But the tragedies of this year have again thrown that basic message into very sharp relief. When schools act to ensure that each member of the school community is valued and respected--or, at a minimum, safe from threat of harm because of their perceived difference--the climate for LGBT students improves. Over time, this shift in school climate will contribute to a societal shift to reduce the power of homophobia. We have worked hard at GLSEN to identify the steps that correlate with that improvement. But too few schools have acted.
Too few schools have built a culture of respect founded on a clear commitment to the safety of every member of the community spelled out for all to see with inclusive, enumerated anti-bullying policies. Too few schools have provided training for school staff to prepare them to act promptly and appropriately when incidents occur. Too few schools foster student leadership to improve school climate and create a culture of respect. And too few schools incorporate accurate and factual information about LGBT people, history and life into the curriculum.
As we move into 2010, I am increasingly impatient with those schools that have not acted. GLSEN is firmly committed to the long-term project of improving school climate, and, as an organization that works in partnership with leading education associations, we are well aware of the complicated nature of efforts to affect any form of change in our schools. But at a certain point you just begin to feel that some things cannot wait.
Creating a more accepting school climate can be easy as utilizing GLSEN's newly redesigned Safe Space Kit, a resource designed to make individual school staff more visible as allies to students and prepare them to reach out to their colleagues to create a web of visible support throughout the school. The Safe Space sticker at the heart of the Kit has long been one of GLSEN's most popular resources, and posting this sticker is one of the most direct, and simple, acts an individual can undertake to provide crucial, visible support for students who need it.
Simple. Direct. A way for individuals to act, even if they're ahead of the curve of systemic change. Not sufficient unto itself, but essential as a step forward in the context of urgent need. Tragedy has a horrifying way of bringing things back to basics.
Eliza Byard, Ph.D.