Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Education Department Affirms Right to Form Gay-Straight Alliances

Last week, the U.S. Department of Education released a Dear Colleague letter affirming the rights of students to form gay-straight alliance (GSA) organizations on campus.  The letter, written by Education Secretary Arne Duncan, emphasized the serious problems of bullying and harassment in U.S. schools, especially with regards to LGBT students.
Harassment and bullying are serious problems in our schools, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students are the targets of disproportionate shares of these problems. Thirty-two percent of students aged 12-18 experienced verbal or physical bullying during the 2007-2008 school year;and, according to a recent survey, more than 90 percent of LGBT students in grades 6 through 12 reported being verbally harassed — and almost half reported being physically harassed — during the 2008-2009 school year.High levels of harassment and bullying correlate with poorer educational outcomes, lower future aspirations, frequent school absenteeism, and lower grade-point averages. Recent tragedies involving LGBT students and students perceived to be LGBT only underscore the need for safer schools. 
Secretary Duncan highlighted the positive effects GSAs have in schools:
Gay-straight alliances (GSAs) and similar student-initiated groups addressing LGBT issues can play an important role in promoting safer schools and creating more welcoming learning environments.  Nationwide, students are forming these groups in part to combat bullying and harassment of LGBT students and to promote understanding and respect in the school community.  Although the efforts of these groups focus primarily on the needs of LGBT students, students who have LGBT family members and friends, and students who are perceived to be LGBT, messages of respect, tolerance, and inclusion benefit all our students.  By encouraging dialogue and providing supportive resources, these groups can help make schools safe and affirming environments for everyone.
And he goes on to articulate the disturbing reality that many LGBT students experience in school when trying to form GSAs: their clubs often face a multitude of barriers from schools themselves:
But in spite of the positive effect these groups can have in schools, some such groups have been unlawfully excluded from school grounds, prevented from forming, or denied access to school resources.  These same barriers have sometimes been used to target religious and other student groups, leading Congress to pass the Equal Access Act.
The letter strongly encourages public schools to comply with the Equal Access Act, which requires that all public secondary school students be given equal access to clubs and organizations, and protects all kinds of student organizations.  Also, it announces a new set of guidelines that the Department of Education’s General Counsel is issuing, which aim to create school environments in which students, including LGBT students, can feel safe and free to be themselves. 
Overall, this announcement makes it clear that the U.S. Department of Education is committed to building safer schools for all students, including LGBT students. 
Please thank Secretary Duncan for his support of the rights of LGBT student organizations in public schools by calling 1-800-872-5327, emailing or writing to the U.S. Department of Education (400 Maryland Avenue, SW Washington, D.C. 20202) today!