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June 27, 2018

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Building Empathy through Conversational Forums with LGBTQ Students

April 9, 2018


Bullying continues to be a pervasive problem among today’s youth, despite the growing number of bullying prevention and character building programs in schools. The LGBTQ community is particularly vulnerable to feeling unsafe at school, as they are disproportionately harassed for being different. In fact, these students are twice as likely as their peers to report being shoved, kicked, or otherwise physically assaulted. Middle and high school students who identify as LGBTQ are at greater risk for academic failure and dropping out, due to the biases they face from other students, and even from some teachers, administrators, parents, or coaches. And, sadly, LGBTQ youth are three times more likely to commit suicide than their heterosexual or cisgender peers.


Inviting opportunities to be heard and understood


Students who identify on the LGBTQ+ spectrum, like other marginalized groups, often seek support from compassionate adults in order to feel understood and accepted by their peers, their parents, and their teachers. That was the motivation of a group of students in the Alliance Club at Miami Palmetto Senior High School. This impressive group of authentic leaders initiated a series of informational and interactive forums for the purpose of “preventing bullying and creating safe spaces where we can understand others who may be different.”  


The first of the series featured a presentation and a Q&A session with Dr. Marilyn Volker, a well respected sexologist, who addressed the biological and neurological intricacies of gender and sexual identity. This session was rich with information, and was well attended by students, parents, and school administrators, including the school’s principal. One of the main takeaways from this session was that gender identity is expressed as a combination of physical and emotional factors that are unique to each person. Dr. Volker emphasized that people who identify as transgender should not be considered freakish, and that everyone, no matter how they identify or how they look, should be treated kindly.


In the next student-initiated forum, which I had the privilege of moderating, a panel of students who identified themselves as falling somewhere on the LGBTQ+ spectrum of sexual orientation and gender identity, spoke candidly about their lives as LGBTQ teens. Audience members for this forum consisted of students at the school, who were invited to participate in a Q&A session by asking respectful questions of the panelists. Anticipating that some audience members may be reluctant to ask certain questions, the students had developed a list of questions which I asked intermittently to round out the discussion, as part of my role as moderator.


The student-prepared questions were as follows:




The third forum featured a panel of parents of LGBTQ students, along with a couple of students. The audience was comprised of parents from the school community. Again, as moderator, I helped facilitate the discussion with some questions prepared by the Alliance Club students, as a guide:



For the final forum in the series, this one for teachers, the Alliance students and their faculty advisor, Mr. Larry Schwarz, decided to organize a more traditional presentation of information, including facts about such issues as the social and emotional factors related to gender identity; coming out; suicide rates; and local and national laws affecting gender rights, including bathroom use for transgender students. The emphasis was on the legal and ethical responsibility of teachers to treat LGBTQ students with equal respect, and that teachers, as trusted adults who often spend more time with them than their parents do, can play a significant role in helping to shape these students’ feelings of self-worth and self-respect, as well as protecting them from bullying and harassment. Although students were not present for this forum, teachers who attended provided very positive feedback. They reported that they had a deeper appreciation for their LGBTQ students as a result of this presentation, and had learned some statistics and concepts that they felt offered insights into the LGBTQ youth community that they were not aware of before. 


In the future, the Alliance Club students would like to iterate on these forums, keeping the same format and adding questions based on what they learned from the inaugural run. In addition to an information session for teachers, they are considering having an open forum where teachers are able to ask students questions directly about their lives as LGBTQ students. 


Preventing bullying through student-led efforts to build empathy


In both of the forums that I had the honor of moderating — the one for students, and the other for parents — the audience first listened to each panel member introduce and describe themselves in the context of their gender identity and sexual orientation. By doing so, these students exercised courageous leadership and opened themselves up to being vulnerable, in order to build empathy and compassion at their school and in their community. They also set an example for respectful communication, and a free and open interchange of ideas about potentially sensitive and controversial issues. We can all learn from them.


As parents, teachers, coaches, or students, when we take the time to practice empathy we are creating an atmosphere of compassion and emotional safety that contributes to a supportive school culture where we all can thrive.


For more information about the challenges LGBTQ youth face in schools today (and support for the statistics cited in this post) I recommend resources such as the Human Rights Campaign’s report “Growing Up LGBT in America”; “From Teasing to Torment: School Climate Revisited,” GLSEN’s report from their survey of U.S. Secondary School Students and Teachers; and from Research Triangle Institute International, “Violence and LGBTQ+ Communities: What Do We Know, and What Do We Need to Know?


To connect with us and continue the conversation, visit our Compassionate Classrooms Facebook page, subscribe to our mailing list, and Tweet us @EllenFeigGray and @AngelaStockman.

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