Why would a counseling professional discuss adolescent identity formation and challenges to fitting in at school, and fail to include a discussion of sexual orientation and gender conformity?
This is an excellent question, and one that several parents asked me after the March presentation hosted by the Loudoun Education Association of Parents. The topic was “‘Where do I fit in?’: – Identity Issues Discussion,” and was originally suggested by a LEAP delegate in response to the 2005 controversy over the portrayal of a gay football player in a student play. The ensuing public discussion raised very troubling questions about what our schools are doing to create a safe learning environment and have an open dialogue with the students regarding sexuality and identity issues. Remarks by some school board members at the time indicated that, if anything, they were trying to ensure that students have NO safe place in which to explore the topic.
The clinical psychologist on the panel who discussed adolescent issues spent a great deal of time explaining the concept and importance of “school connectedness,” defined as “the extent to which students feel personally accepted, respected, included and supported by others in the school environment.” Recent research finds that interventions that increase school connectedness are a much more effective violence prevention measure than are so-called “zero tolerance” policies.
The high school guidance counselor on the panel reinforced this with her description of the things her school is doing to increase the sense of belonging among a very diverse student body. One thing she singled out as important to this end is encouraging a large variety of student clubs. For kids who are picked on or who don’t fit in for any reason, having a club where they do fit in is a critical protective factor. For the younger children, the principle is the same: For a child who doesn’t fit in or is bullied, having even a single friend makes the difference. Significantly, the advice given to middle school students by the Next Level 4 Teens program is the same: If you are being bullied, form a group of friends who will stand up for each other. Stick together.
“The omission is glaring,” one parent told me.
All students go through the process of identity formation and figuring out where they fit in. This advice is all well and good, and applies universally to all students – or at least we would like to think it does. What if a particular group of students is singled out, though – not by their peers, but by adults – and told that their identity formation process is uniquely unacceptable? What if they are told that their concerns, experiences and feelings are “an inappropriate topic” for student expression, and that their wish to create a safe space for themselves will not be supported by the school?
How do such messages affect the extent to which these students feel personally accepted, respected, included and supported by others in the school environment?
In practice, this is what frequently happens to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students in our schools. Their speech is censored, they are not protected from anti-gay bullying, and they are often blocked (illegally, by the way) from forming Gay-Straight Alliances or similar student clubs with their like-minded friends. If they have questions about their sexual orientation, they aren’t supposed to ask; according to policy, our Family Life Education instructors are not allowed to answer questions about sexual orientation. Because of the noisy fuss made by a small minority of adults in the community, an entire category of students are being told that they are less valued than other students.
“They don’t care about addressing the needs of an entire segment of the student population.”
That was exactly my question for the panel: How do we address the fact that some people actively oppose anything that would facilitate GLBT students being accepted, respected, included and supported – the definition of this critical quality of school connectedness? Because of that opposition, and the failure to neutralize it, the message is that some students don’t matter.
And this program was, unfortunately, no exception. Because of a small, angry contingent in the audience, the panelists were afraid to answer questions about the singling out of this vulnerable population. Perhaps they were even instructed ahead of time to avoid discussion of anything this group would deem “controversial,” and that included acknowledging the obvious fact that sexuality is a profoundly important part of identity formation for all young people, not just the GLBT ones.
That’s a shame, but the good news is that more and more parents seem to be recognizing and talking about it.