When Chris Colfer, star of Glee, came out publicly as gay, he described being bullied relentlessly in high school, just like his character Kurt on the show. His only friends, he said, were his co-workers in the cafeteria, the “lunch ladies” who made his days more bearable.
As Executive Director of GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, my job along with my colleagues is to end the bias, bullying and violence faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in our K-12 schools nationwide. Sadly, Chris Colfer’s experience in high school is all-too-common: research demonstrates that LGBT students are disproportionately at risk for bullying and violence at school, and hence more likely to skip school, suffer depression, and do less well academically. Indeed, the potentially tragic consequences of unchecked bullying have been squarely in the public eye for the past two years.
GLSEN’s work is designed to save lives, bring hope, and transform hostile school climates into healthy learning environments for all students, regardless of their sexual orientation, gender expression or gender identity. The first step in that effort is to ensure the safety of every child who walks through the schoolhouse doors. To do so, we must enlist the partnership of all adult members of the school community. The presence of supportive adults is one of the most important factors in an LGBT student’s personal well-being and sense of connection to their school. One supportive adult can save a life. Six or more can transform a culture.
But far too few are acting to play a role in ending the problem. Eighty percent of LGBT students report that teachers and other school staff who witness anti-LGBT name calling do little or nothing to stop it. And more than a third of the students who have reported incidents of anti-LGBT bullying or harassment to school officials say that nothing happens in response. Whatever one’s opinions about the rights of LGBT people, surely caring adults can agree that all students deserve to be safe at school and be afforded a basic measure of respect.
I am honored to serve as a member of Sodexo’s Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Board (DIAB), and I am impressed by Sodexo’s commitment to the diversity journey. I also know that Sodexo’s 16,500 team members in K-12 schools nationwide are a potential army of allies to students who are cast out, isolated or picked on, whatever the reason. Indeed, Sodexo’s worksite employees are among the most critical adult allies to those students – because of the nature and location of their duties. LGBT students report that they are most afraid of locker rooms, bathrooms and cafeterias. Indeed, they avoid these spaces out of fear of victimization. Each of them needs the friendship and support of those school staff most likely to be in those spaces, many of whom are likely to be representatives of Sodexo.
Sodexo has been a great partner to GLSEN as a sponsor of our efforts and as the presenter of GLSEN’s Educator of the Year Award for the past two years. I look forward to the further deepening of that partnership, which I believe will continue to be of tremendous benefit to Sodexo’s employees and the many young people across the nation who are looking for support and help.
Eliza Byard is the Executive Director of GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network.)
Tags: bias, bullying, chris colfer, diab, diversity, Educator of the Year Award, Gay, glee, glsen, inclusion, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, lgbt, sodexo, Sodexo’s Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Board, support, violence