The loss of one young life is a cost too high. At least, you’d hope that it wouldn’t take much more to convince people of the urgent need for action to end bias and bullying directed at lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) young people in our schools. But, over the past few months, I have continued to make that case, repeatedly, to decision makers whose attention was newly captured by the relentless drumbeat of tragedy in the news.
It’s utterly senseless to me that bullying and harassment of students continues, and that LGBT students remain central targets. But honestly, I don’t expect it to stop any time soon unless we all get serious about investing in cultures of true respect in our schools. Our culture is growing more diverse, not less. Diversity is just a fancy word for “difference,” and difference often kicks up fear. The violence that comes from fear is a clear result of our failure to help young people learn a different way and, sadly, to model better behavior ourselves. Regardless of who perpetrates it, however, violence is not an acceptable response.
In the words of Saad D., GLSEN’s Student Ambassador from Texas: “Instead of being oppressed by our differences, we should embrace them.”
Embrace diversity. Understand and respect cultural differences. Those are the messages that schools, communities and corporations hear increasingly. If we fail at this mandate, the cost is remarkably high. For our LGBT youth, violence and bullying born of fear can have tragic consequences. For corporations, where bullying is called harassment, the cost is lost productivity, reduced profitability and limited success with recruitment and retention of talent, especially among recent college and high-school graduates. In order to eliminate this problem, we must support students as they emerge as citizens of an increasingly diverse and global community—reducing the ranks of both bullies and victims.
We know that some desperate students use a very simple strategy to combat bullying: They just don’t go to class or they skip school. GLSEN’s 2009 National School Climate Survey, a biennial survey first launched in 1999 to examine the school experiences of LGBT students nationally, found that nearly 30 percent of LGBT students skipped a class or a day of school at least once in the past month because they felt unsafe or uncomfortable, which is three times higher than the general school population. The survey also found that LGBT students who were harassed had lower GPAs and were less likely to plan to attend college.
These findings have a direct relationship to one of the discussions that is currently under way in corporate America about workforce talent, the diminishing number of available workers, the impact of diversity on the workplace, the cost of recruitment and the cost of retention.
The survey results reinforce unequivocally that “skipping” class or school is a central strategy for dealing with a hostile environment. Is it then reasonable to assume that corporate personnel may also skip work if they are threatened by hostility in their workplace?
And as schoolyard bullies grow up without alternative strategies to deal with difference, why should we think they’d grow up to be anything other than workplace bullies?
For 20 years, GLSEN has been working to end anti-LGBT bias and bullying and their dire consequences: intimidation, fear, isolation and the loss of the opportunity that comes with getting a good education, not to mention the even more tragic results of these stresses for some young people. Working on LGBT issues in K–12 education is not easy—and GLSEN’s reputation and partnerships have been earned and strengthened over time through hard work and rigorous focus. In our quest to be as effective as possible in dealing with these critical issues, GLSEN builds from a base of knowledge and continually assesses the impact of our programs. Over time, our programs and the school-based solutions we champion have been shown to reduce bullying behaviors and increase young people’s sense of connection to their communities. They also lead to better educational outcomes, leaving students better prepared for success.
We can’t possibly count the young lives that GLSEN has saved through our front-line school trainings that gave people the courage to say: “Stop! You can’t say that!” Or the number of students who stepped into a teacher’s office, marked by a Safe Space sticker, and felt protected from a tormentor. Or the millions of students who have paused to think “Will this hurt?” before they made a disparaging comment, simply because ThinkB4YouSpeak, GLSEN’s groundbreaking Ad Council campaign, forced them to stop and confront how their use of anti-LGBT language hurts others.
But we can count the thousands of students, teachers, administrators, parents and allies who are being trained, who are participating in student days of action, who are advocating for policy changes to protect students from harassment and bullying. We can measure GLSEN’s impact on changing the climate of schools and empowering LGBT student leaders, helping them stay in school so that they attain both their academic potential and, later, their career goals.
Keeping talent is expensive. The investment that corporations make to recruit and retain employees grows annually because the talent pool is shrinking.
GLSEN invests in your future corporate talent and your future workplace climate. We are committed to helping LGBT students both stay in school and study in a climate that allows them to achieve their full potential. Our programs and initiatives support the healthy development, individual well-being and community integration of young people who face significant additional barriers in life. Our programs engage all young people and school personnel in order to promote school cultures that value and celebrate difference and classes that graduate prepared for life in a diverse environment. We know they are talented and we want them to shine, to reach their full potential as high-school or college graduates, as well as the kind of talent that corporations seek to attract and retain. Today’s students are our future … and yours.
Byard is the executive director of GLSEN.
GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, is the leading national education organization focused on ensuring safe schools for all students. Established in 1990, GLSEN envisions a world in which every child learns to respect and accept all people, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity/expression. GLSEN seeks to develop school climates where difference is valued for the positive contribution it makes to creating a more vibrant and diverse community. For information on GLSEN’s research, educational resources, public-policy advocacy, student organizing programs and educator-training initiatives, visit www.glsen.org.