You matter. You belong here. We care about you.
These are fundamental principles that undergird membership in any community or classroom. In Michigan's public schools – and throughout the nation – there is a group of students who have routinely heard the opposite message.
You are an abomination. We hate you. You'd be better off dead.
I'm talking about students across our state who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or who are questioning their gender identity and/or sexual orientation.
Reid Ellefson-Frank, a transgender high school student from Williamston, and his mother, Nicole Ellefson, spoke eloquently at a recent meeting of the State Board of Education in Lansing about the agony Reid faced as a transgender high school student. Reid said, “The fear and worry and anxiety ate away at me until I really couldn’t be a student anymore. I don’t think that fear should have any place in a school. But I don’t blame the students or the teachers. Their ignorance and cruelty weren’t their fault because they were never taught how to act when they met someone who wasn’t straight. ...I was treated like an alien because to them, that’s exactly what I was.”
Unfortunately, Reid’s experience is shared by thousands of American students across our state and nation every day. Watch Reid’s, his mother’s and others’ testimony starting at 16:50 here.
Data from the 2015 Michigan Youth Risk Behavior Survey show that students who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual (LGB) – 8.4 percent of all high school students in every community in our state – are 2.3 times more likely to be threatened or injured with a weapon on school property than their non-LGB peers. They are 2.3 times more likely to skip school because they feel unsafe. Forty-one percent of LGB students report being bullied on school property, and they are 4.5 times more likely to attempt suicide.
You read that correctly: Four and-a-half times more likely to commit suicide. Reid was one of the lucky ones. He survived.
As Michigan Teacher of the Year 2016, I travel the state to offer a classroom teacher's perspective on a variety issues that affect everyone. The plight of students who are LGBTQ is an area of much-needed improvement. Our school climates are not merely failing these already vulnerable kids. They are killing them, literally.
The disproportionate rate of suicide and homelessness among teens who are LGBTQ is a public health emergency and moral imperative that must be addressed now. As an educator, I am always mandated to provide a physically and emotionally safe environment for every one of my students. Not just the ones that look and act just like me. All of them.
Fortunately, the State Board of Education is proposing guidance on the creation of safe and supportive learning environments in schools to support students who are LGBTQ. The guidelines can be read, and residents’ opinions shared, here. The State Board of Education is engaged in the process of adopting these guidelines.
While these are merely suggestions, not proposed legislation, they are grounded in years of research and effective practice.
There is a significant amount of flexibility and local control that enable these guidelines to fit within the context of individual school communities. The guidelines state: "The overall goal here is to ensure the safety, comfort, and healthy development of all students – including transgender and gender nonconforming students – maximizing inclusion and social integration while minimizing exclusion and stigmatization."
Through offering guidelines and recommendations to support LGBTQ students, students who do not identify as LGBTQ are in no way disadvantaged or inconvenienced. In fact, schools that accommodate the needs of transgender students, for example, create a school-wide culture and climate that benefits all students. Accommodations for some do not in any way limit, restrict or infringe on the rights of the majority of students to enjoy the right to a public education as they always have.
Nicole Ellefson talks about the challenge of “holding your child as he tries to summon the will to live in the face of lack of acceptance and hatred...a situation I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. Our children have shredded themselves psychologically and physically. They’ve killed themselves. All because society refused to accept them.”
The guidelines remind us of the commitment that we as teachers, students, staff and community members must have to the marginalized among us:
“The Top 10 in 10 Years strategic goals, the State Board of Education and the Michigan Department of Education are committed to reducing the impact of high-risk factors and providing equitable resources and access to quality educational opportunities to meet the needs of all students."
It's time for safe and supportive learning environments for Michigan's LGBTQ students. Our kids and our communities are ready. Above all, we cannot afford to lose one more child to suicide. Reid Ellefson-Frank simply asks, “Help take the fear out of our schools.”