February 09, 2012

PFOX & Montgomery County: Why a foundation for safe schools matters

News broke this week that anti-LGBT group Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays (PFOX) sent home fliers to students in Montgomery County schools advertising potentially harmful ideas about so-called conversion therapy.

Montgomery County has a long-standing tradition of allowing groups to send fliers home. After a court decision in 2006, the county's new policy is to allow any registered non-profit group to send home fliers at four times during the school year. As MyFox DC points out, these fliers are normally from the PTA or a Girl Scout troop. This is not the first time PFOX sent their flier home with students, and its not the first time they have drawn the ire of parents, students and educators alike.

Thankfully, Montgomery County, though forced to distribute the flier, has not taken a neutral position.  Superintendent Joshua Starr said the fliers are "reprehensible and deplorable," according to NBC 4 in Washington.

In case you were wondering, so-called conversion therapy has been thoroughly debunked and discredited by a coalition of 13 national medical and mental health organizations. Just the Facts About Sexual Orientation and Youth: A Primer for Principals, Educators, and School Personnel is an amazing resource that serves as a guide for school employees who confront sensitive issues involving lesbian, gay, and bisexual students. It is intended to help school administrators foster safe and health school environments, in which all students can achieve to the best of their abilities.

I grew up in Montgomery County, Maryland and attended Montgomery County Public Schools for kindergarten through 12th grade and while my school wasn't perfect, it was safe. Montgomery County has an enumerated anti-bullying policy. Schools are full of thriving Gay-Straight Alliances. Our county's non-discrimination laws include protections for transgender people. There were multiple openly gay teachers at my school. Openly gay students are everywhere: from the varsity track team to the school's theater productions.

While the message of PFOX is troubling and problematic, the good thing is that Montgomery County has a foundation for respect. The same thing is not true in all school districts. Growing up is hard enough, schools should be places of safety and support. That's why I work at GLSEN and that's why GLSEN's work is so important. Research like the National School Climate Survey and Playgrounds and Prejudice, give us a clear understanding of what school is really like. And resources such as the Jump Start Guide for Gay-Straight Alliances and Ready, Set, Respect! give students and educators specific tools to foster a climate of respect.

I look forward to the day when there simply isn't any group who would want to send home such a flier. Until then, we must all work to ensure that schools are safe for every student, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity/expression.

If you'd like to do something concrete to help make schools safe, here are two suggestions:

  1. Sign-up for updates from GLSEN. We'll keep you updating on a variety of ways you can get involved from emailing your senator to signing a petition.
  2. Send a Safe Space Kit to your school. I made sure that my middle school and high school each have a kit. You can designate a school of your choice to receive a kit. The kit contains resources for educators and "Safe Space" stickers and posters that teachers can display to indicate they are a safe place for LGBT students.
Brian Murphy

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