White House safe schools conference was groundbreaking

Posted on 02 Apr 2012 at 12:37pm

RHONDA THOMASON  | Special Contributor

As a retired elementary school teacher from the South, I am inspired by the progress we’ve made in the fight against bullying. Over my 25-year career, I witnessed far too many students hurt by words and actions simply because they were different. Back then, I took the necessary steps to stop bullying, but as teachers we were on our own in addressing the cause. Today, we have the knowledge and the tools to get at the root of bullying and harassment, which is often anti-LGBT bias.

The recent White House LGBT Summit on Safe Schools and Communities at the University of Texas at Arlington was huge — even by Texas standards. It was a groundbreaking end to silence and a call for communities to stand up for LGBT people in communities and schools. With senior members of President Barack Obama’s administration and the Departments of Justice and Education together talking about keeping schools and communities safe for LGBT Americans, it is clear we have come a long way as a nation. But we can’t become complacent. There is still far too much work to be done to secure a country where we are safe from hate crimes on the streets of our communities, and our kids from bullying in their schools and on their playgrounds.

HRC was proud to participate in the Summit. Our Welcoming Schools program was represented on a Safe Schools panel and in two bullying prevention and intervention workshops. Welcoming Schools is a comprehensive guide for elementary schools with resources to embrace family diversity, avoid gender stereotyping, and end bullying and name-calling. The program addresses bias in in elementary schools, with the goal of stopping bullying and harassment before it becomes a problem in middle and high school. Parents, educators and community groups were also delighted by the trailer to HRC’s new short film titled What Do You Know?, featuring 6- to 12-year-olds talking about gays and lesbians. There was excitement about what Welcoming Schools could offer their schools. This program can save lives.

A recurring theme of the day was how much things are changing for the better. A former University of Texas at Arlington student spoke to me about his own difficulty less than five years earlier finding and connecting with the campus GSA. There was no visible outreach, membership identity was secretive and meeting notices were shared only through email. Today there are signs in UTA hallways promoting GSA meetings and powerful voices like Attorney General Eric Holder, Valerie Jarrett, and Judy Shepard joining local voices speaking for LGBT civil rights and safety. Even for Texas, it was big!

We have come a long way in our fight for full equality. But we have a lot further to go. We will win this fight, and make schools and communities safer in the process.

Rhonda Thomason, a retired elementary school teacher, serves as southern regional consultant for the Human Rights Campaign’s Welcoming Schools program. 

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