As an alumnus of Chillicothe High School in Chillicothe, Ohio, and a former Student Ambassador for the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN), I was sickened by last week's report of the assault that occurred at Unioto High School, where a 15-year-old student was beaten up, presumably because of his sexual orientation.
The footage captured on a cell phone reflects the environment in which many LGBT students receive their education. This is why I know it is important to spread the word about bullying in our schools and work to make the changes needed to protect the rights and safety of all students.
At 13 years old, I came out as gay to my family and friends. I became the frequent target of bullying and harassment, but I had my family's support to get me through each day at school. According to an Ohio research brief based on data from GLSEN's 2009 National School Climate Survey, nearly 9 out of 10 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students attending school in Ohio reported experiencing harassment because of their sexual orientation.
When I entered high school and the harassment intensified, I made the decision to stand up to the relentless bullying. I founded my school's Gay-Straight Alliance. It made my school community aware of the experiences that students like me endured on a regular basis.
I soon noticed a difference in Chillicothe High School's climate after founding the student club: more students and school staff intervened when incidents of bullying took place. A forum for discussion opened up, and people no longer worried about their own sexual orientation or gender identity being called into question. They were more likely to speak out about harassment against their classmates.
During my four years at Chillicothe High School, I was able to be part of a movement that changed the school's hallways from threatening passages into affirming corridors that lead to classrooms promoting safe and respectful learning. The school district's anti-discrimination policy protects students based on their sexual orientation. I was able to establish my high school's Gay-Straight Alliance that is still going strong. I organized student events like the Day of Silence in my school, and I addressed anti-LGBT language in my school through the Think Before You Speak campaign. And I know Chillicothe High School continues to ensure that all students feel respected and valued for who they are.
Unioto High School is less than four miles away from my own high school. As I reflect on the recent anti-gay assault at this neighboring school, I believe it was a case of ignorance and fault on the part of the school's administration.
It is the responsibility of Unioto High School's administration and staff to be educators, and to provide an environment in which all students feel safe and accepted. Being proactive and taking preventative measures is what truly holds merit. By facilitating discussions about the right for all students to feel safe in school and by creating a space that promotes respect for difference, school staff will be addressing this issue head on.
One may ask why this is necessary. Why do we need this kind of response because of one isolated incident? Because similar findings from GLSEN's 2009 National School Climate Survey reveal that nearly two thirds (61.1 percent) of students reported that they felt unsafe in school because of their sexual orientation, and more than a third (39.9 percent) felt unsafe because of their gender expression. The fact that we can even measure this unacceptable experience in our schools is a testament to how much work still needs to be done in our school system.
I charge each of you reading these words to stand up for the safety of all students. Please speak out against anti-LGBT bullying in our schools. Do it for all the times that you stood by when you could have intervened and saved someone from the pain like the gay student endured at Unioto High School. By doing so, you will be the reason that an LGBT young person believes in their ability to excel in school and reach their full potential.