Safe Schools

Equality Virginia believes that all students and school employees have the right to feel safe in their educational environment or workplace, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity and expression.

What is the current status in Virginia?

Beginning in 2012, only 1.85% of Virginia public school students in two districts were protected by a bullying policy enumerated with sexual orientation and gender identity or expression.

Today, after working with school boards and community members in Virginia Beach, Charlottesville, Alexandria, Richmond Cities, Albemarle, and Fairfax counties, almost 25% of Virginia public school students are protected due to their sexual orientation and gender identity or expression. Moreover, thanks to Attorney General Mark Herring’s new opinion on school boards’ authority, they now have the power to amend non-discrimination policies for employees to include language for sexual orientation and gender identity. But our work isn’t over yet.Safe Schools

Background ►

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning students frequently are the subjects of harassment and bullying by peers, teachers, and school officials. Recent research by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) indicates that over 70% of LGBTQ youth are reporting hearing derogatory and anti-gay threats at school, and often they are unchecked by school staff and administrators. Such harassment and bullying undermines the positive learning environment that schools try to create, leads to lowered self esteem and can contribute to depression.Despite the prevalence of such behavior, many school officials in Virginia continue to lack the training, information and resources about LGBTQ  issues and schools lack resources to respond to and address the real needs of LGBTQ youth.

Current statistics indicate that LGBTQ youth: make up approximately 33% of teenage suicides nationwide; are 60% more likely to be substance abusing/substance addicted than their heterosexual peers; and make up as many as 40% of calls to the national runaway hot-line.

LGBTQ youth are not more at risk simply because of who they are; they are driven to depression and are forced to find other ways to cope with the negativity that they encounter daily from their teachers and peers. School professionals have an obligation to provide a positive environment for all of their students, and to role model and promote pro-social development for our youth, but they need to be educated on the risk and protective factors for LGBTQ youth and how to support these youth in facing most effectively given the unique challenges they may experience at home, school and in the community based upon their sexual orientation and gender identity.

 

Bullying

Success

EV supported passage of anti-bullying legislation in 2005 and amendments to that law in 2010 to require policies against cyber bullying.

 

Virginia laws against bullying in public schools are rated A++ by BullyPolice.org. The laws do not, however, specify classes of individuals, including LGBTQ youth, who may be victims of bullying, harassment or violence at school. Nor does the law specifically define what behavior constitutes bullying.

Public Policy ►

State law, §22.1-279.9., requires local school boards to develop student conduct codes consistent with state published guidelines that prohibit bullying. Each board must include in its code of conduct prohibitions against bullying, hazing, and profane or obscene language or conduct.

Virginia law also requires school officials to develop character education programs that “address the inappropriateness of bullying, as defined in the Student Conduct Policy Guidelines adopted by the Board of Education pursuant to §22.1-279.6.”

The General Assembly has encouraged teachers, school volunteers and school officials to report bullying to appropriate authorities by affording them immunity from civil suit for making such reports in good faith. §8.01-22.1:2 The same statute also makes clear that immunity afforded teachers for actions within the scope of their employment does not protect them from legal actions to redress “bullying” by them of students.

Taken together these laws provide a framework for active advocacy by students, parents, teachers, school administrators and local citizens in favor of the adoption and implementation of local school division policies, conduct codes and disciplinary policies that provide effective protection for LGBTQ students against bullying, harassment and intimidation and encourage school climates that prevent such acts from occurring.

 

Gay Straight Alliances (GSAs)

Success

Efforts to pass a state law banning the formation of GSA’s directly or indirectly have been unsuccessful because of EV’s effective advocacy against such legislation. This leaves the decision whether to support GSAs in the hands of local school boards and the parents and students they serve.

 

Gay Straight Alliances (GSAs) are clubs that seek to create a safe space for LGBTQ youth and foster understanding in heterosexual peers.  GSAs are present in many high schools in Virginia (GLSEN reported 103 schools had such clubs as of June 2007). GSAs empower Virginia LGBTQ youth to succeed in the face of bullying and harassment and to make active steps to improve their school environment.

Nonetheless, some school officials and members of the Virginia General Assembly have shown continued resistance to the establishment and support of GSAs in Virginia schools. This prevents students from establishing a safe space and arming themselves with the tools that they need to begin to build bridges of understanding.

Public Policy ►

School divisions, as as those in Rockingham County and Harrisonburg, have chosen to institute permission slip programs (opt-in programs) despite the litigation risk and administrative burdens involved. Others, such as those in Fairfax County, publish a list of active student clubs at each school and give parents the right to decline permission for their children to participate (opt-out programs). Still others, such as Chesterfield County, have held public hearings and have chosen NOT to institute a permission slip program.

Federal law provides some protection against discriminatory school policies that single out GSAs for adverse policies. Federal law explicitly prohibits such “viewpoint discrimination” in setting school access policies, the Equal Access, 20 U.S,C, sec, 401 et seq.

In addition, school board actions specifically designed to limit the formation of GSAs also would jeopardize students’ fundamental rights to freedom of expressive association, as guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the Virginia Bill of Rights. Both students and adults have the right to associate freely, and this right is not limited to political groups, but includes associations for social, legal and economic purposes. Roberts v. Jaycees, 468 U.S. 609 (1984); Erznoznik v. City of Jacksonville, 422 U.S. 205, 212 (1975), Gay Alliance of Students v. Matthews. 544 F.2d 162 (4th Cir. 1976).

 

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