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An Interview with Kevin Jennings, Founder of GLSEN

Safe Schools for Everyone

Found In: teaching strategies

When Kevin Jennings taught history in Rhode Island 10 years ago, he saw students verbally bullied and harassed to the breaking point. It reminded him of the torment of the endless name-calling he suffered when he was in school.

But when the bullying among his students began to turn physical, he decided he had to do something to make school a safer place for everyone. That’s when he founded the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN).

GLSEN is a national education organization focused on ensuring safe schools for all students. Established nationally in 1995, GLSEN works with educators, students, and the community to help children learn to respect and accept all people, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity and expression.

According to the organization’s 2005 National School Climate Survey, the only national survey to document the experiences of students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) in America's schools, more than a third (37.8%) of students experienced physical harassment at school on the basis of sexual orientation and more than a quarter (26.1%) on the basis of their gender expression. Nearly one-fifth (17.6%) of students had been physically assaulted because of their sexual orientation and over one-tenth (11.8%) because of their gender expression.

“If school isn’t a safe place for all students, and some are harassed and bullied for being different, academic achievement suffers tremendously,” Jennings  says. “It’s not about how you feel about gay people, it’s about making sure all of our students achieve.”

According to the School Climate Survey, gay and lesbian students were five times more likely to report having skipped school in the last month because of safety concerns than the general population of students; were twice as likely as the general population of students to report they were not planning to pursue any post-secondary education; and had an average GPA a half point lower than gay and lesbian students who weren’t harassed.

To help combat the problem, teachers need to create a classroom culture of respect and acceptance from day one, Jennings  says. With the start of school only days away, now is the time to begin planning.

“As part of their introductions to the students on the first day of school, teachers should lay out exactly what their expectations are for the classroom,” Jennings  says. “They should say to students, ‘Our focus is on learning, and I won’t tolerate language and behavior that distract from that focus.’”

Jennings  recommends telling students exactly what kinds of language and behavior won’t be tolerated and to be specific about words and gestures. “As a former teacher, I know the more specific we are with kids, the better they do,” he says. “There’s a perception that it’s OK to bully certain people, so teachers need to be clear by saying, ‘there’s no bullying in my classroom, and that includes teasing people about race, appearance, sexual orientation, gender expression’ – anything that kids will focus on.”

According to another GSLEN survey, “From Teasing to Torment: School Climate in America, A Survey of Students and Teachers” -- a national survey of more than 3,400 students ages 13-18 and more than 1,000 secondary school teachers -- the reason most commonly cited for being harassed is a student’s appearance and body size (39%). The second most common reason is sexual orientation. Of those surveyed, 33% of teens reported that students are frequently harassed because they are or are perceived to be lesbian, gay, or bisexual.

Beyond explaining what will and will not be tolerated, teachers must be prepared to intervene when students break the rules – because they will, according to Jennings  . “Intervene the very first time you see someone get out of line, because students are going to test the limits,” he says. “If you hear a student say something like, ‘that’s so gay,’ you can’t just ignore it – you need to intervene and ask, ‘what do you mean by that?’ Otherwise, you’re teaching the students that it’s OK to talk that way.”

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