Wednesday, April 8, 2009

New York Legislation Opposing School Bullying: Implications for Church-Owned Universities

Pam Spaulding’s House Blend blog is reporting (here) today that the New York house has just passed a Dignity for All Students act which promises all students in the state—including those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered—a learning environment free of bullying.

This is an important initiative, and it strikes me as significant that the legislative measure comes right at the same time that Julie Halpert has published an essay in Newsweek about the difficulties her daughter, who is a lesbian, faces as she searches for a university to attend this fall (here).

Halpert notes a survey by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) last October finds that 86 percent of LGBT students report being verbally harassed in high school, and 44 percent report physical abuse. As she notes, this makes the search of gay young people for safe and accepting college campuses imperative, since youth who have experienced harassment in high school do not want to step into an unwelcoming environment at the college level.

However, as she notes, though a handful of universities now publish information about gay support groups or the campus environment for LGBT students, many campuses continue to overlook the need for such information (and even for support for their gay students).

As I’ve noted on this blog, these challenges matter to me not only as someone concerned about bullying of gay youth, but as a professional educator whose service has been in church-owned universities. It’s our universities that produce the teachers who then go into the classroom at the elementary and high-school level.

When our universities are silent about the presence of gay students (and faculty, staff, and administrators) on their campuses, of, even worse—and this is the case with not a few church-owned universities—when they actively punish faculty or staff who call for an end to such silence and a safe environment for gay students, they do a huge disservice to all of us. By their refusal to address gay issues, they help to shape educators for our school system who will transmit the same silence—or, even worse, outright prejudice—towards gay youth.

It’s time for our churches and church-owned universities to stop being part of the problem here and to become part of the solution. It’s time for churches to assure that the universities they sponsor do not protect homophobic administrators who punish gay faculty, staff, and students. It is time for church-owned universities to create networks to assist gay students, who deserve to pursue their college educations in environments free of prejudice and harassment.

As I have noted in previous postings about this issue, church-owned institutions ought to lead the way here, not drag up the rear. Churches are committed to healing social wounds, not making them deeper.

And as I have also noted (here), church-owned institutions would do well to follow the lead of the prophetic African-American educator who founded Bethune-Cookman University, Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune. Dr. Bethune once noted that she regarded every little girl she met on the street as a future Mary McLeod Bethune.

No young person who comes to an educational institution—whether at the elementary, high school, or college level—deserves to be treated as anything other than a human being full of promise for a bright future. The continuing refusal of many church-owned universities to create environments welcoming to gay students (and faculty, administrators, and staff), and to educate students about tolerance and inclusivity in a pluralistic society, is a betrayal of all that churches ought to stand for, if they read the gospels with open eyes.