September 19, 2016 by

Moving Beyond the “Safe Schools” Paradigm

By Michael Sadowski, Educational Leadership author

Educational Leadership: More Than a Safe SpaceAt first glance, my recent article for Educational Leadership“More Than a Safe Space,” may strike some readers as an argument against safe schools for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students. Could I really be arguing against the goal of making schools safe for these young people, who face so many risks in school and in their lives?

Well, yes and no. The “safe schools” approach to creating better schools for LGBT students was a necessary political move in the late 1980s and 1990s, when this work was just getting started. At a time when many people thought it was unimaginable to talk about being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender in any school context, advocates wisely argued that LGBT youth were at risk—physically and emotionally—and that schools had an obligation to make sure all students were safe. This work led to the growth of gay-straight alliances, anti-bullying programs, and other developments that have made a life-saving difference for many young people.

Although arguing for safe schools for LGBT youth seemed revolutionary 20 or 30 years ago, now it seems, well, safe. Students need more. Despite the fact that more schools than ever have gay-straight alliances, and that many schools’ anti-bullying programs address sexual orientation and gender identity specifically, silence still prevails in other aspects of school life. In the latest National School Climate Survey by the Gay, Lesbian, & Straight Education Network, fewer than one in five students reported any mention of LGBT people or issues in their classes.

The time is ripe for a new paradigm, one that moves beyond safety. In my article, I profile three schools that have taken this work to the next level. Their examples show how educators can make schools more than safe in just about any context.

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Michael Sadowski is the author of Safe Is Not Enough: Better Schools for LGBTQ Students (Harvard Education Press, 2016). He is director of the Bard in Hudson Civic Academy and teaches about youth development and education at Bard College.