Safe schools: What can we do right now

Even today, nearly 20 years removed from that moment, I can still hear the laughter. I can still feel the shame. I can still remember the confusion of being teased for being who I was. Throughout my adolescence I was told: “Just be yourself and people will like you.” Yet here I was doing just that, and not only did people not “like” me, they were actually laughing at me.

I was in my fourth-grade English class, and our teacher, Ms. Douglas, opened the lesson by stating, “We are going to work on sentence fragments today, in teams — it will be the boys against the girls.” As soon as she reached the end of her sentence, my body tensed up and prepared for the inevitable jokes and teasing. I took a deep breath and closed my eyes. Before I could exhale, I heard, “So where is Louis going to go? The boys’ side or the girls’ side? There’s no team for fags!”

I kept my eyes closed and was committed to keeping them closed until the class finished laughing. It only took Ms. Douglas about a minute to regain control, but to me it felt like a day and a half. I am not sure what she said to quell the laughter, but I was thankful — even though the student who incited the situation was not held accountable.

During round two of the classroom competition, I was called to the board to win the “boys” team a point. I was so nervous, the piece of chalk felt like a brick in my hand. The room fell completely silent and all I could hear was Ms. Douglas saying, “Are you ready? Underline the verb. Circle the noun. Place two lines under the adjective … ” Her voice faded out, and I attempted to do what she asked.

I cannot remember what I did or did not do, but I could hear Ms. Douglas whispering “no.” Although I wasn’t facing her, I knew she was guiding me to the point. I quickly corrected what I had written, placed the chalk down and turned around. Holding my breath, I awaited the verdict.

Ms. Douglas stood up, walked over to the chalkboard, placed her arm around me and said, “Louis is the only one who has done this correctly. Maybe if you all weren’t too busy teasing him, you would learn the difference between your verbs and nouns.” I stood there, feeling relieved that I had earned the point for the “team” — but still unsafe because the word “fag” continued to ring in my ears.

As I begin to work with teachers and administrators alike this school year, my fourth-grade experience stays with me, and reminds me to have compassion for teachers who may not know what to do when bullying occurs in their classroom. In my case, Ms. Douglas did what she knew best: She taught. Years later, I understand she did not have the tools to create and maintain safe spaces. I am sure that she felt responsible for what happened. I am sure that she was uncertain of how to hold an entire class accountable. I am sure if I were her, I would have probably struggled with these same things.

That is precisely why the dialogue around bullying must continue. It is only through these conversations that we continue to raise awareness and provide teachers with the tools they need to create safe spaces for all students.

In 2011, LGBTQ youth and youth who are perceived to be LGBTQ, continue to be harassed, teased, bullied and victimized in schools throughout the country. Often, I believe teachers really want to address the problem, but are not quite sure how. There is no magic answer or single solution, but simply acknowledging that bullying is taking place can be an important first step toward making a change in the classroom environment, and ultimately creating a bully-free space.

Schools are expected to provide a safe and respectful learning environment that affirms and honors all students. Until this is instituted systematically in all schools, teachers can support this effort by taking steps to create these kinds of spaces in their classrooms. These steps include:

1. Having courageous conversations with students around bullying and the impact it has on an entire school. 2. Adopting a comprehensive antibullying policy that serves as a guide and reminder for all students and staff. 3. Supporting students in understanding that creating a safe space is a shared responsibility. 4. Supporting efforts that promote antibullying, such as creating a gay/straight alliance, observing A Day of Silence, Ally Week, No Name Calling Week and LGBTQ History Month. 5. Implementing a curriculum that promotes inclusiveness and affirmation of all students. 6. Taking part in town-hall meetings and other citywide events that address the issue of safe schools. I recently had the opportunity to meet with Tom Perez, head of the Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Department of Justice, at a forum held in Philadelphia and hosted by the group Asian Americans United. Perez had traveled to Philadelphia to engage in a dialogue about bias/harassment issues in schools. It was an excellent opportunity to meet with others who are tackling similar issues and challenges — and a reminder that bullying impacts not just LGBTQ students, but students of all kinds, from all groups and all neighborhoods. It simply underscores the fact that we all have an interest in creating safe schools for our youth.

Until teaching tolerance and affirmation for LGBTQ youth becomes part of the school curriculum, we as adults must work to ensure that all the youth who come up and come out feel loved and honored. This has been proven to save lives.

Special thanks to Ms. Douglas, who in her way, helped to remind me that when I thought I was standing alone, I was not.

Louie A. Ortiz is education manager and coordinator of the Ally Safe Schools Program at Mazzoni Center, the region’s only LGBT-specific health center.

Newsletter Sign-up