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Coming OUT for Safe Schools

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School continues to be a dangerous place for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth.   A 2014 study by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) found that 65% of LGBT students heard homophobic remarks frequently or often, 56% of LGBT students reported personally experiencing LGBT-related discriminatory policies or practices at school, and 33% of LGBT students were physically harassed (e.g., pushed or shoved) in the past year because of their sexual orientation.

“Despite increased public acceptance of LGBT people in general, many school campuses remain toxic environments for LGBT students, contributing to higher rates of suicide, depression, homelessness and HIV infection,” said Los Angeles LGBT Center CEO Lorri L. Jean.

In 2013, the Los Angeles LGBT Center and Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) in coordination with other community partners, including the GSA Network, developed and launched OUT for Safe Schools™ to help make schools safer for LGBT students. More than 30,000 rainbow badges were provided to LAUSD teachers, administrators, and staff to wear voluntarily that proudly identify themselves as allies and protectors of students who are LGBT.

“We approached LAUSD about developing this program to create visible adult allies throughout the entire school system, helping LGBT youth feel safe and supported while helping to deter would-be bullies,” said Jean. “Now, wherever students look, they’re sure to see adults who proudly identify themselves as allies for LGBT students.”

"Since its launch, OUT for Safe Schools™ has enriched the lives of both students and staff members in the Los Angeles Unified School District,” said the LAUSD’s Board President Steve Zimmer. “A whopping 30,000 of our employees—representing one-third of LAUSD’s entire staff—pledged to be visible allies of LGBT students by wearing the rainbow-designed badges. I have worn mine every day—there is nothing I am more proud to wear. I applaud my district for stepping up to the plate and keeping all of our schools a safer space. No child should ever be bullied, taunted or harassed simply because they’re different."

Almost immediately the Center began fielding requests from other school districts to expand the program. So in 2015, the Los Angeles LGBT Center and GSA Network collaborated to give 50,000 teachers and other staff in participating districts a new way to “come out” as supportive LGBT allies with plans to support as many school districts as are interested in the program. During LGBT Awareness Month, the Center and GSA Network introduced the program in eight other cities throughout the country—New York, Chicago, Boston, Oakland, San Diego, Duval County (Florida), San Francisco, and Washington, D.C.—reaching more than 2.5 million students in grades K–12.  The OUT for Safe Schools™ badges were part of a larger comprehensive effort by these districts to support LGBT students that includes training teachers and school staff, supporting GSA clubs, and working to engage parents and families to increase support.

Noah Jenkins is an 18-year-old self-identified genderqueer graduate of a school in South Los Angeles that participated in the OUT for Safe Schools™ program.

“The OUT for Safe Schools™ campaign played such an important role in my high school development. It was incredibly comforting to see so many teachers and other staff wearing the badges, because I never expected to feel welcomed in high school,” said Jenkins. “Because of the badge, I was able to be so much more open about myself, knowing that someone had my back. School is already stressful and it was a huge comfort to not have to worry about my safety because of who I am. These badges are a visible reminder to LGBT students that we are not alone, and for many, this reminder will quite literally save their lives.”

As evidenced by its success in LAUSD and 2015 national launch, the OUT for Safe Schools™ program is an important component of comprehensive efforts and ongoing work to keep our kids safe at school. A 2014 study by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network found that LGBT students with 11 or more supportive staff at their school were much less likely to feel unsafe than students with no supportive staff (36% vs. 74%) and had higher GPAs (3.3 vs. 2.8). Unfortunately, only 39% of those surveyed could identify 11 or more supportive staff at their school. The OUT for Safe Schools™ badge has become a way of identifying a mobile, human safe space, creating visible adult allies throughout the entire school system which help LGBT youth feel safe and supported while helping to deter would-be bullies. The badge is not just a symbol – it shows that the wearer can be approached if an LGBT youth needs help to feel safe at school.

Project SPIN and Out For Safe Schools™ are supported by Jeanne Phillips and Walter Harris representing The Jay and Rose Phillips Family Foundation of Minnesota. The national rollout was made possible, in part, by a generous $100,000 challenge grant from the David & Linda Shaheen Foundation. The philanthropic couple have been longtime supporters of the Center and fearless advocates for education and youth.

Antonio David Garcia is a former educator, coach and Executive Director of two LGBT Michigan Community Centers and currently serves as the Director of Policy and Community Building at the Los Angeles LGBT Center.