As teachers, counselors, and administrators, we hear the words of bullies reported, comfort the bruises of victims, and see the bigger picture of prejudice that spans from classroom to soccer field to hallway. Too many times, episodes of bullying are based around students’ perceived sexuality or identities, and as research proves, our young people are suffering.
One way schools can combat these attacks is to host a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA). High schools across the country have answered the challenge to provide safe and supportive spaces for children. Slower to move, however, are middle schools.
Why a GSA in Middle School?
It’s important to note that the tween years extend from ages 10 to 15. That spans upper elementary school into high school, with the majority being the middle school years. This is a key period for lesbian, gay, and bisexual students: The children in one survey reported being “attracted to another person of the same gender at about age 10.”
The Trevor Project reports several troubling statistics. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer (LGBTQ) youths “are almost five times as likely to have attempted suicide” as heterosexual kids. Forty percent of transgender adults report having attempted suicide during their lives, and 92 percent of these people say they did so before the age of 25. And “one out of six LGBTQ students nationwide (grades nine to 12) seriously considered suicide in the past year.” That’s on our watch, under our care, yet the majority of our schools are not helping students enough with the confusion and fallout that might occur during this chapter of a student’s life.
By only providing GSAs at the high school level, we’re denying the safe space they would provide, and the positive impact they could have, for students prior to ninth grade.
The good news is that research shows that GSAs at the middle school level can benefit school climate and individual social and emotional health for all students. A GSA helps both LGBTQ and heterosexual tweens. Bullying, after all, occurs across all lines and a GSA is about building advocacy in all allies. A 2014 study found that “LGBTQ students are at higher risk for suicide, in part because they are more often targeted for bullying and discrimination, but heterosexual students can also be the target of homophobic bullying. When policies and supportive programs like GSAs are in place long enough to change the environment of the school, it’s better for students’ mental health, no matter what their orientation.”
How Can My School Begin a GSA?
First off, know your facts. GSAFE, an organization focused on supporting and protecting LGBTQ students, reminds us on their website that “if you attend a public school that has other non-curricular clubs, the Equal Access Act [a federal law] states that your school cannot deny the formation of a GSA (or a Bible club, for that matter).”
Also know that you are in good company. While middle schools are slower to host GSAs on their campus than high schools, the topic appeared frequently at this year’s conference of the Association for Middle Level Education, the leading middle school organization in the country. The focus this year was on the wellness of middle school students, and we can’t be talking about social and emotional learning and not include the GSA in the conversation.
Here are four points to consider before getting a club started on your campus.
1. Understand how a GSA is different from other clubs or organizations. GSAs are run by students, not by adults. Therefore, while a teacher offers a safe space for meetings and conversations, the activities and decisions must come from the student members themselves. The students drive the conversations, events, and meeting agendas. An adult is vital, however, to provide the students a routine place to meet, to teach them how to schedule events on the school calendar, and to provide informed outreach to the rest of the staff. You’re the adult helping them navigate how to run the organization they want to run.
2. Know your role as a protector of privacy. Learning more about privacy issues is key when becoming a sponsor of a GSA. Make sure the school understands that student privacy is paramount. When the GSA was first launched at the middle school where I teach, we had students who had already identified, but we also had students who were siblings of identified students. We had students who were questioning, and students who were merely curious about the club. Students are entitled to privacy as they decide how to be a member or ally.
3. Guide students to write a mission statement. While students run the show, they might need help in basic communication practices. Guide them in creating a mission statement. Help GSA student leaders learn how to establish group norms and bring a meeting to a consensus.
4. Utilize the high school GSA for mentorship and advice. Create an articulated program where students from the high school program can help those in the younger program.
If you’re interested in learning more about establishing a GSA in your school, check out the Jump Start Guide provided by Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network. But don’t wait to ensure that students know your classroom is a safe one. Order a Safe Space kit and let your students know that yours is a room with both their heart and head in mind.