Laramie educators want to foster support for LGBT students in the classroom

Mar 29, 2013

Schools across the country have embraced sweeping anti-bullying measures in recent years. Universities and schools districts are encouraging teachers to celebrate diversity and discourage exclusionary language, but at the upcoming Shepard Symposium on Social Justice, the University of Wyoming will host a group that say teachers need to beexplicit about their acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer or questioning students. Wyoming Public Radio’s Rebecca Martinez spoke with educators in Laramie about their thoughts on the topic and filed this report.

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WILL PLUMB: It is my personal belief that anyone getting into education, if you’re not there to educate every kid that comes into your room, what in the world are you doing in that job?

REBECCA MARTINEZ: In a bustling Laramie coffee shop, Laramie High School Social Studies teacher Will Plumb is chatting with his colleague, Nichol Bondurant, and one of their former students, Nicholas Jesse. The three know each other from the LHS’s Gay-Straight Alliance, a club that functions as a support-group for LGBT students and their allies. Nick Jesse was a member, and Bondurant and Plumb are co-sponsors. Plumb is straight, but he remembers that his peers gave him grief as a kid because he took dance lessons, and his teachers were no help either.

PLUMB: I had teachers say, what are you some sort of fag, Plumb? And I hated education. I hated it. If you had told me at 18 I was gonna be a teacher, I would have told you where to go and how to get there. Because I could not think of a more vile environment.

MARTINEZ: Subsequent experience changed his mind, obviously, but not his disdain for slurs of any kind. Plumb and Bondurant are quick to admonish and correct students who use derogatory phrases to describe rural people, Mormon people, gay people. LHS graduate Nick Jesse came out as gay as when he was a sophomore. Now he’s double majoring at U-W. Jesse had a positive experience in high school… And he says these teachers had a lot to do with that.

NICHOLAS JESSE: It made me feel, like, kind of empowered actually, when they’d bring up the fact that, you know, they were against these words and, like, why you can’t use them. It made me feel like I could be myself just a little bit more.

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MARTINEZ: These are the kinds of results the Shepard Symposium for Social Justice is hoping for in Wyoming schools. The Symposium has invited a group called GLARE – which stands for GLBTQ Advocacy in Research and Education – to encourage future teachers and counselors to integrate awareness of LGBTQ issues in schools. GLARE is based in the School of Education at Brooklyn College in New York.

MARIA SCHARRON-DEL RIO: There’s no school that is going to talk about having second-class citizens. But, when we treat certain groups of people as subnormal, you know, it can easily be deducted by the way that people interact with each other.

MARTINEZ: That’s Maria Scharron-Del Rio, a professor in the school counseling program at Brooklyn College, and one of the leaders of GLARE. She cites national data from the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network – or GLSEN – that show more than half of LGBT students often feel unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation, and a third skipped school because they felt unsafe. GLSEN also found that schools with active Gay-Straight Alliances had overall reductions in bullying.

Scharron-Del Rio encourages teachers to understand and be explicitly supportive of LGBT people. And she wants educators to teach about that population’s contributions to society, and how sexual orientation is just one type of diversity.

SHARRON-DEL RIO: What makes us more effective as future teachers, future professors, future leaders, is to be very comfortable in navigating these intersections…. both within the groups we are part of and the groups that we don’t know.

MARTINEZ: The Wyoming Department of Education administers a questionnaire every other year, surveying students about bullying issues. The data shows that bullying in Wyoming high schools jumped 25-percent from 2009 to 2011, and by 50-percent in middle schools during that time. But they never specifically asked about LGBTQ issues.

Wyoming School Safety Consultant Bruce Hayes says they will include a question about sexual orientation in their bullying questionnaire this year. As a former educator, Hayes says teachers need to be supportive and protective of ALL their students, but he’s not sure that EXPLICITLY focusing on LGBT issues in the classroom will make much of a difference.

BRUCE HAYES: I think the jury’s still out. Some people feel that it’s very important to focus on that group. Other people feel that, you know, we don’t need to do that, that we need to keep an umbrella of tolerance of everybody. I think the jury’s still out, if that’s gonna be effective or not.

MARTINEZ: Kim Sorenson, principal of Laramie High School disagrees. He says, as principal, it’s proven very important to be very clear that bullying INCLUDES harassing LGBT students… He says openly tolerant teachers, the presence of a thriving Gay-Straight Alliance, and a school policy that explicitly prohibits bullying based on real or perceived sexual-orientation has promoted an overall atmosphere of tolerance at his school.

SORENSON:  You know, when we go all the way back to Mathew Shepard, there was bullying and harassing going on before then, there’s bullying and harassing continuing on today. But we have a lot more people aware of the ramifications of that. We have a lot more people aware of how to successfully intervene. We have a lot more people aware that know what to do if they’re a victim.

MARTINEZ: Sorensen says he’d like to see more teachers trained to be supportive of LGBT issues, and more teachers setting an example of respect and tolerance for their students.

For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Rebecca Martinez.

HOST: GLARE will lead presentations throughout the Shepard Symposium at the University of Wyoming. The Symposium is open to the public and runs April 3-6.