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Published: Thursday, 7/13/2006

Lots to learn for students on gay rights

Pop culture may have gone Queer Eye-friendly, but too few teens got the memo.

For gay and lesbian kids, school is still often hostile.

Ask Brenda Spurlin, who knows this all too well. The veteran teacher, who retired last year from DeVeaux Junior High, is the mother of an adult gay son and a founder of Toledo Rainbow Area Youth, a social and support group for gay teens.

"It's always the same thing: A lot of defacing of lockers and cars with words like 'fag' or 'lezzie.' And then, of course, the verbiage kids hear in the hallways," said Ms. Spurlin, who has known several gay teens beaten by their classmates.

If you're tempted to write her off as overly sensitive, don't. Her anecdotal observations are backed by data.

The national group GLSEN (the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network) commissioned a Harris interactive survey, and its 2005 Ohio report confirmed gay kids are targets.

Sixty percent of bullied students said their perceived sexual orientation was the reason, but 66 percent who were harassed never reported it to their school.

Now, a local coalition is preparing a training program for teachers and administrators.

"[Toledo Public Schools] already adopted language that's protective of not only [gay, bisexual, and lesbian] students, but transgendered students as well. It's one of the few school districts in the country with that kind of broad policy. Now, the real issue is to get the word out," said Rob Salem, of the University of Toledo law school faculty.

"Just having a nondiscrimination clause does nothing in a school setting," added Kim Welter of Equality Toledo, an equal-rights advocacy group.

"We're going to be working with adults - staff, faculty, administration, any parent groups who want to see what we're doing. And we'll do training around how to stop kids from bullying," said Ms. Welter, an ex-teacher.

During student anti-harassment training, she said, "kids say, yeah, [bullying isn't] nice. And then they turn right around and we hear them saying 'fag' in the hallways. They tell us, 'Well, that's what the coaches talk like. That's what our fathers say.'‚óŹ "

Michelle Stecker, a Presbyterian minister and law school student who's working to bring in teacher training, doesn't expect much resistance. "No one can say they don't want safe schools for kids. It's not a morality issue, it's a safety issue," she said.

But if doing the right thing isn't motivation enough for school districts, there's always the cold reality of law.

With lawsuits ending in million-dollar awards, she said, "School districts are just starting to realize it's in their best interest to give kids a safe environment. The law is very clear.''

Roberta de Boer's column appears here Tuesdays and Thursdays, and in Behind the News on Sundays. Watch her on-air column Wednesdays this month during the 5 p.m. news on WTVG, Channel 13.

Readers may contact her at:

roberta@theblade.com

or 419-724-6086.



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