When Arla Jones was a teacher-sponsor of the Gay-Straight Alliance club at Lawrence High School — before there were such clubs at the middle schools — many students came with bleak descriptions of their years there.
“During that time, most of the students told awful stories about their experiences in middle school,” said Jones, who sponsored the LHS GSA club from 2004 to 2012. “Including stories of bullying and alienation, feeling that they were alone, or even that they were the only person experiencing what they were going through.”
But things are beginning to change. After two recent additions, all four of the middle schools in Lawrence now have a teacher-sponsored club for LGBT students and allies, and the school board is looking at additional ways to support LGBT students districtwide.
Jones, now a teacher at South Middle School and sponsor of its GSA Club, said that having a sense of belonging is a basic human need, and support for LGBT students is affirming not only to GSA members, but also to students who may not feel able to come to the club.
“GSAs are important because LGBT students need to feel safe and supported in school, in order to be successful in school,” Jones said.
LGBT youth are more than two times as likely as non-LGBT youth to say they have been verbally harassed and called names at school, according to a Human Rights Campaign report that surveyed more than 10,000 LGBT-identified youths ages 13-17 nationwide. The survey also indicated that LGBT youths are more likely to report being unhappy and that they do not have an adult they can talk to about personal problems.
West and Southwest middle schools both began clubs this year — the club at West started up last semester, and the Southwest club held its first meeting this month — making this school year the first in which an official club has existed at all middle schools. Clubs for LGBT students and allies began at Central and South a few years ago, and high school club leaders say that the recent additions have meant increased membership and activism at that level.
Expansion of middle school clubs
Tatyana Younger, a junior at LHS and president of the GSA Club, joined the club as an ally. Younger said offering support earlier is important, and she’s excited there are clubs at all of the middle schools now.
“A lot of people seem to think that sixth-graders are too young to understand these issues, but kids in all grades are being bullied and having issues,” Younger said. “Having an outlet is such a helpful thing for these students, so they don’t have to go through middle school feeling isolated.”
Several teachers are sponsoring the club at Southwest, and about 20 students from all grade levels and about five staff members attended the first meeting this month, said Brigid Murphy, a teacher at Southwest and one of the sponsors.
“The fact that so many staff members have stepped up to show support and attended the meeting gives these kids reassurance,” Murphy said.
The GSA at South Middle School formed in 2012, at Central in 2011 and at LHS in 2004, with informal, student-led groups existing at LHS before that, Jones said. The club at Free State has existed on and off since 2006. School clubs are usually student initiated, and have at least one teacher who sponsors the club and hosts regular meetings and activities for students after school. In addition to giving LGBT students a safe space within the schools, it’s also a place for allies, Jones said.
“GSAs are important for our students who have parents, friends, or relatives — often siblings — who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender,” she said.
One of the school board’s goals this year is to investigate issues related to LGBT students and implement supports. The goals, which were finalized Sept. 14, are generated by asking teachers, staff and administration what issues the district needs to focus on, said Lawrence schools Superintendent Rick Doll.
“The discussion started that this is a group of students in our schools that we need to be more concerned about,” Doll said. “We would like to learn more about what it means to be an LGBT student in our schools.”
The investigation into LGBT student issues is listed as one of the action steps of a larger initiative to develop district curriculum to raise the achievement of all students. Doll is in charge of the LGBT action step along with two other district administrators: Jose Cornejo, mental health facilitator, and Kevin Harrell, director of student services. As part of the work on the initiative, Doll said that they will gather information through discussions with teachers, parents and students about the challenges LGBT students have.
“If there are challenges that are special to this group of students, we want to identify what those challenges are and then start to plan for solutions,” he said.
Effects of more LGBT student clubs
Lindsay Buck, a teacher at LHS and one of the sponsors of its GSA club, has been sponsoring the club for the past four years. Buck said that in that time the number of students participating has approximately doubled — increasing from about a dozen students to more than 30 — a fact that she attributes to the addition of the first clubs at the middle schools.
“They come in already aware of the club,” she said. “They are comfortable in seeking us out; it’s not this brand new thing when they get up to the high school.”
Another effect of students coming to high school already familiar with a club is that they are interested in the organization playing a more activist role, Buck said. One of the goals of the LHS GSA is to help make LGBT students more visible and provide educational opportunities for others. The efforts are student-led, with teachers acting as guides.
Last school year, for instance, Younger, the LHS GSA student president, said that the club held the first pride week, using each day of the week to provide information about the subgroups of LGBT people to students, staff and administration.
“We set up a table in the rotunda,” she said. “We had kids come by and ask questions and had games to learn more about sexuality and gender.”
Younger said the club’s plans for this school year include participating in the homecoming parade, Pride Week and the Day of Silence, as well as workshops and educational presentations.
Jones said that the recent change of law regarding same-sex marriage will undoubtedly increase the number of openly LGBT families, and that all parents, staff and youth in Lawrence will benefit from additional support and education at the district level.
"It’s my hope that the board’s initiatives will increase understanding and reduce anxiety surrounding LGBT issues in Lawrence and above all, make life better for LGBT youth," she said.
As far as what districtwide supports for LGBT students might look like, Doll said they could be facilities such as unisex restrooms; professional development for district employees; or curriculum and resources for parents and students.
The investigation into the topic will span most of the school year, and Doll said a report will be delivered to the school board in the spring, with implementation of any changes going into effect for the next school year. In the meantime, action can still be taken, Doll said.
“As we raise awareness about this, there is certainly nothing that would keep a school or a GSA from starting to do things right now,” he said.