The Green Bay Area School District has banned bullying based on gender identity, and educators are looking for other ways to make the school day easier for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender kids.
The Green Bay district is among the first in Wisconsin to train staff on related issues and consider ways to make gay-straight alliances more effective, said Brian Juchems, of the Madison-based Gay Straight Alliance for Safe Schools.
Each of the Green Bay district’s four high schools and Washington Middle School have GSA groups. The district provided training for staff and parents last year.
“We know there is bullying and harassment going on, and we want students to know that that is not acceptable,” said Elizabeth Wetzel Gracyalny, a social worker at East High School and the district’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning coordinator.
“There wasn’t a special rule for making fun of kids for gender expression, and we wanted it to be in black and white. If we have a rule, we can say ‘This is a rule you are breaking.'”
In addition to the bullying policy, district officials are looking at other measures to make schools more accommodating for transgender students, such as gender-neutral bathrooms or special locker room accommodations. It’s working with a state advocacy group to make changes.
The Janesville School District recently adopted a policy barring discrimination based on gender identity. That district will allow transgender students to use the bathroom and locker room of the gender with which they identify if parents and principals give the OK.
Even smaller steps can make a difference, Green Bay officials said. For example, Southwest High School administrators could reconsider a tradition that has graduating seniors wearing blue gowns of they are male and white if they are female.
“Why not just have one color so it isn’t a dilemma for the transgender student?” Gracyalny suggested.
Reports show lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender — or LGBT — students struggle in school.
A 2011 national survey of nearly 8,600 middle and high school students found eight out of 10 LGBT students experienced harassment at school in the previous year. The study, conducted by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, said more than half of LGBT students felt unsafe in school because of their sexual orientation and about 40 percent felt unsafe because of gender expression.
The New York-based network’s website says its goal is “for every student, in every school, to be valued and treated with respect, regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.”
The survey included 212 Wisconsin students, who said they had all heard the term “gay” use in a negative way.
Nine out of 10 students said they heard students say something negative about a person’s gender expression. About a third said they heard similar remarks from school staff, and one out of 10 said they regularly heard school staff make homophobic remarks.
Juchems has helped train staff in Green Bay and De Pere. Advocates also met with Green Bay parents, Gracyalny said.
“Educators want the school experience to be positive. The emotional traumatization that happens with bullying or other issues takes them out of the learning environment,” Juchems said.
Awareness is important, he said.
“If the teacher inadvertently uses the wrong name or a substitute teacher comes in and used the birth name, and refers to them by a female name and the students know them as male, you’ve outed them. Or if they use ‘he’ instead of ‘she.’
“Instead of saying ‘all right boys and girls, or ‘ladies and gentlemen,’ just say ‘y’all or ‘all right, learners,'” he said. “That helps create a safer experience.
“These are the kinds of things staff need to be sensitive to.”
Surveys indicate students who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender generally report higher drug and alcohol use, Gracyalny said.
“It confirms what we thought,” Juchems said. “They are more likely to be depressed, more likely to think about suicide. This should be a clear calling to communities that harassment is not OK.”
Gracyalny noted the Gay-Straight Alliance group at East works to promote the “Day of Silence” event in mid-April aimed at protesting harassment, discrimination and hate.
“I think awareness is a big part of it,” she said. “I think just the presence of a GSA makes kids feel safer and more accepted.”
Patti Zarling – Green Bay Press Gazette