LANSING — Over the past several years, Kim Phillips-Knope’s role in assisting Michigan high school staff address lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues has changed.
Phillips-Knope, who has worked with educators and administrators through a program called “A Silent Crisis” for the past decade, said the program began with informing them about the state’s LGBT population and the risk of self-harm and then moved onto ensuring that those students are safe and thrive in public high schools.
Now educators understand that the LGBT population exists and is at risk, but “What do we need to do to make sure they’re safe in our schools?” said Phillips-Knope, a Michigan Department of Education special projects consultant.
According to the 2013 Michigan Youth Risk Behavior Survey, the 8.7 percent of high school students who identified as lesbian, gay or bisexual were 4.6 times more likely to attempt suicide, three times more likely to be threatened or injured with a weapon on school grounds in the past 12 months and 2.7 times more likely to miss at least one day in the past 30 because of safety concerns.
That shift in awareness on the part of educators is reflected in the growing number of participants in the program, along with the demand for an advanced course, she said.
“When I first started 12 years ago, if we had 20, 25, people attending training we felt like that was a good number, and now we have to put a limit of 50 participants — and we have wait lists,” she said.
But the willingness to address LGBT issues in public high schools isn’t always the norm and Michigan law doesn’t mandate that schools spell out protections for students in their individual anti-bullying policies, said Jay Kaplan, American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan staff attorney for the LGBT project.
Kaplan, who has fielded calls from parents and teachers, said there’s a reluctance to discuss those issues in school for fear of community pushback.
Reactions when public high schools address LGBT issues include religious-based objections and arguments that such attention isn’t needed, according to Kaplan and Craig Laurie, a Michigan Organization on Adolescent Sexual Health training coordinator.
Kaplan said he has seen times when LGBT issues were discussed and as a result, a teacher reprimanded.
But such problems can’t be resolved just with the implementation of a school policy because it’s “only worth the piece of paper itself” if the students, teachers and administration lack the proper training, Kaplan said.
He said it comes down to recognizing and intervening when LGBT-specific bullying occurs and giving teachers the tools to handle such situations.
Greenville High School Principal Jeff Wright said although his staff is looking for LGBT training programs, his students have lead the charge over the past four years, creating a gay-straight alliance and other inclusivity groups.
“Helping individuals value each other — that’s been a big focus of our school over the last few years,” Wright said. We “wanted to create a safe place for all students to learn. The awesome thing here is that it’s really been a partnership, staff and student.”
Peter Haines, the Ottawa Area Intermediate School District superintendent and former Greenville Public Schools superintendent, said he has seen LGBT issues come to the forefront over the past several years.
“LGBT issues have been on our minds and are concerns for our kids,” Haines said. “I saw some significant policy change and dialogue.”
But Laurie said unsupportive administrators and teachers also represent the largest roadblock to students wishing to create gay-straight alliances in their schools. He studies the prevalence and effectiveness of such groups in Michigan high schools.
Laurie said gay-straight alliances work best when they’re championed by adult faculty and students.
In the wake of same-sex marriage legalization and growing acceptance of people who are LGBT, Laurie said there can also be pushback from community residents when students want to form such alliances because they believe that social acceptance has already occurred.
“I think sometimes the conversations have changed,” he said, “sometimes, though, for the negative. I think you can get pushback from people: Growing cultural acceptance, then it’s followed by ‘I don’t understand why they need these.’”
— MICHAEL KRANSZ