Are some school districts too poor to protect their LGBTQ students from harassment? By now, everyone knows the story of Alex Merritt, the Anoka student who fled homophobic bullying from two teachers last year.
What most people don’t know is that a law that would help students like Merritt – who is straight – get help from their schools to combat anti-LGBTQ harassment was vetoed in May by Governor Tim Pawlenty. Now it sits in the legislature, waiting for supporters to decide if they can organize a vote to override the Governor’s veto. But researchers investigating bullying against LGBTQ students say these students are more vulnerable to harassment in rural schools, in part because rural districts are more likely to be poor and lack the resources to train teachers and staff to prevent bullying.
Getting the bill through the legislature was “astounding,” said Monica Meyer, Public Policy Director for OutFront. “We had legislators who’d never voted in favor of protections for LGBT people before voting to pass the bill. [They heard] a lot of youth telling them that schools weren’t safe — their stories about being harrassed, about being treated poorly and no-one intervening really sunk in.”
One of the bill’s chief sponsors, State Senator Scott Dibble (DFL-Minneapolis), blasted the governor’s veto. “We were happy with the language of the bill…but it was the result of a negotiation with the governor, an agreement which he turned around and reneged on!”
A few weeks ago, researchers from the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, better known as GLSEN, published a study in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence confirming that LGBTQ students face significantly greater hostility and have access to many fewer resources in rural schools, as compared to their peers in suburban and urban schools.
“Poorer districts may not have enough staff or professional development money to help address these issues,” said Joe Kosciw, one of the GLSEN researchers who wrote the study. “Also, If a school district has less money, there may be a higher student/teacher ratio, so there are less staff to catch harassment when it happens.”
Preventing bullying is good business sense for Minnesota schools, who get funding from the state based on the number of students they have, says Kosciw. “One of the things we know from our research is the more a student experiences harassment, the less likely they are to go to school, and the more likely they are to drop out.”
Dibble agrees, but says Kosciw’s claim that poorer districts can’t fund anti-bullying staff training is ridiculous. “I completely reject that argument. Any claim about fiscal impact is just an excuse not to deal with the problem. We specifically appropriate funds for this purpose”
So why don’t poorer districts do more to protect their LGBTQ students?
Alan Horowitz, the head of St Paul Public Schools’ Out for Equity office, says that federal education requirements and the demands of the state test that students must take to graduate leave little room to teach anti-bullying measures to teachers.
“The rigors of No Child Left Behind are so demanding in terms of teaching to the test,” Horowitz said, “that regardless of budget situation, you only have a limmited number of staff development days. The touchy-feely things -that includes the LGBT stuff, the race stuff, the sex stuff — falls by the wayside.”
For now, the coalition of 43 organizations and behind the Safe Schools bill may be biding their time until the next governor, says Dibble, although the groups have yet to decide on a course of action.