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A matter of life and death

DiscriminationColleges and UniversitiesColumbia UniversityChevy Chase

Suicide is the third leading cause of death among all teenagers, but it is the No. 1 cause of death among lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender teens, who often are so driven to despair by the rejection of peers, parents and other responsible adults that they see no alternative except to take their own lives. Such deaths are doubly tragic because many of these young people might still be alive had their teachers, principals and school board officials done a better job protecting them from the vicious schoolyard bullies who tormented them. Yet while Maryland has adopted relatively tough policies against bullying and harassment, too often those rules haven't translated into safe and secure environments for LGBT students in the classroom.

Across Maryland, parents of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender children say that while school officials give lip service to protecting their children from anti-gay bullying and harassment, they have done little to enforce those policies in practice. They cite incidents in which teachers who witness incidents of verbal or physical abuse have refused to reprimand those responsible, or even blamed the victim for the problem. One parent said when she complained that her 14-year-old gay son was afraid to walk to and from school because of the harassment, a vice principal at his middle school told her the boy had brought it on himself by refusing to conceal his sexual orientation.

The importance of the school environment was underscored in a recent report by Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health. In the study of 32,000 11th-grade students in Oregon, LGBT students overall were five times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers. But the study also found that LGBT students living in supportive situations were still 25 percent less likely to attempt suicide than those living in less supportive social environments.

Among the factors contributing to a supportive environments, the researchers cited school anti-bullying policies specifically aimed at protecting LGBT students; schools with student organizations such as gay-straight alliances, which work to make their school community safe and welcoming to all students regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity; and anti-discrimination policies that included gender identity as well as sexual orientation.

The latter is particularly important because transgender students often have an even more difficult time finding acceptance than their gay and lesbian peers. The suicide last year of Aiden Rivera Schaeff, a student at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in Montgomery County, was attributed by friends to the relentless hazing he endured over having openly identified himself as a boy after entering ninth grade as a girl. Even though school officials there were supportive of Aiden's new identity, they apparently were unable to protect him from the repeated physical assaults and verbal harassment of the school's bullies. Aiden hung himself on April 22, 2010, a month shy of his 18th birthday.

The need to protect such students is more urgent now that young people are declaring their sexual orientation at much earlier ages than in previous generations. Today, the average age at which gay teenagers come out of the closet is just 13. That means they will spend a considerable part of their adolescence being openly gay — and suffering the consequences of anti-gay bigotry and discrimination — rather than hiding who they are until they go away to college or enter the work world.

Local advocates for LGBT students who have banded together in groups such as Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) and the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN) say that Maryland's anti-bullying and harassment laws are a good start, but the state education department needs to go further by requiring additional training for all teachers, administrators and support staff so they can recognize and prevent anti-gay bullying and harassment. The state board should also require all Maryland middle and high schools to set up gay-straight alliances to promote tolerance and respect for others, and it must strictly enforce the anti-discrimination laws protecting LGBT students.

Students have a right to a learning environment that is free from harassment, intimidation and violence. But they won't get it unless state and local officials make it clear that they're serious about holding teachers, principals, administrators and school boards to account for the safety of all the young people in their charge, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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