Charles David Alan Jannetto,
First Place Winner 2007-2008
Young Steward of Public Policy
First Place Award 2007-2008
"Safe Schools Legislation"
By Charles David Alan Jannetto
Desert Ridge High School
Imagine a school where every individual is valued and respected. At this school, students, as well as teachers, are free to be open about who they are, without fear of ridicule or rejection. Male students who excel in art or dance are appreciated and encouraged by their peers and female students who excel in science or math are confident in their abilities and are encouraged to pursue careers in those fields. Teachers intervene when they hear hurtful and oppressive language, yet this type of language is seldom used at this school because students understand and embrace differences and appreciate the uniqueness of their peers. School administrators can be counted on to make sure everyone is treated fairly and to support teachers in ending all forms of harassment. Even the athletic instructors and coaches are more attentive to their students’ needs and work with them to stop the name-calling and harassment that is common in sports and PE classes. Students are respected by their peers regardless of how they express their gender, and transgender students are free to use the bathrooms and locker room they feel most comfortable in. At this school there is a sense of community, and students, along with faculty members, appreciate one another and their differences.
Unfortunately, this is not the case for most public schools in Arizona. Hatred and discrimination are common elements on many campuses that hinder students from performing to their highest potential in school. The words “freak,” “faggot,” “dyke,” and “queer” are constantly thrown around locker rooms while instructors pretend they cannot hear it, causing endless fear in many students who might identify as gay or lesbian. Boys are often reluctant to express themselves creatively, whether it is through art, dance, fashion, or theatre, in fear of being called a “faggot.” Despite the harassment in schools based on students’ actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender expression, school administrators try to “avoid controversy” at the cost of students’ safety and well-being.
In a recent survey of school climate in Arizona, sponsored by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, less than half of the students (46%) reported feeling safe at school, whereas the majority reported that people at their school were bullied or harassed because of their actual or perceived sexual orientation (67%), their looks or body size (67%), or because of how they expressed their gender (63%). The survey also showed a lack of intervention by school authorities when hearing biased language.
In the landmark civil rights case, Brown vs. Board of Education, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote
for the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision:
In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.
This decision set the precedent of education as a civil right that is to be equally available to all citizens. This case may have eliminated the physical barriers between the education of white students and black students, or in Arizona’s case, between white students and mestizo or native students, yet it failed to break down the social barriers that are present in our schools today. Students should be guaranteed a safe and supportive environment in which to learn and excel. Once the fear and harassment are eliminated, students will be able to fulfill their highest expectations without having to worry about lack of support from their peers or instructors. Only then will education be available to all on truly equal terms.
For this goal to be achieved, it is essential that our legislators are aware of the harassment that goes on in our schools in order to take the initiative to create change. Arizona should follow in the footsteps of other, more progressive, states by enacting and approving legislation that will ensure that sexual orientation and gender expression are included in schools’ anti-discrimination policies. Another step in the right direction would be to encourage programs in schools that work to stop harassment in all forms, such as those offered by organizations like the Anti-Defamation League, Anytown Arizona, or GLSEN Phoenix. It is the responsibility of our legislators to stand up for the rights of students in their constituency, to secure their safety and well-being, and ultimately make the world a better place for everyone.