Dec. 22, 2010By Stephanie Choate Observer staff
Champlain Valley Union High School is one of the safest schools for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth, according to a survey by advocacy group Outright Vermont.
CVU received the highest possible score on the Safe Schools Report Card, along with 10 other schools.
“These schools are doing amazing work to end harassment and provide needed support to (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning, or LGBTQQ) youth,” an Outright Vermont press release read.
Outright Vermont surveyed all 61 public high schools in Vermont for its 2010 Safe Schools Report Card.
The survey asked schools whether they have some form of Gay-Straight Alliance, gender-neutral bathrooms, whether they track bullying and harassment and if they have a bullying and harassment program. CVU answered positively to all four questions.
CVU’s Gay-Straight-Transgender Alliance has been active for more than 10 years.
“The kids say it’s a safe place to be yourself,” said teacher Emily Rinkema, who has been one of the group’s advisors for nearly 10 years. “People come for a lot of different reasons, and we don’t ask why.”
The group, which has between 15 and 20 members, meets once a week. It offers support or just a place to meet friends — whatever students want to get out of it, Rinkema said. For some, it makes a huge difference.
“We’ve got students who, when they come up from middle school, they say that just knowing the high school has an active GSTA made them feel like they can get through high school,” she said. “For some kids, it’s the one place where once a week they can completely be themselves.”
Melissa Murray, Outright Vermont’s executive director, said that the mere presence of a Gay-Straight Alliance improves the climate of a school for all students. It especially helps those who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, some of whom may not have other support systems.
“The biggest issue facing queer youth in Vermont is isolation,” Murray said.
Outright Vermont found that 46 percent of schools, including CVU, have a Gay-Straight Alliance. Murray said that while her team is seeing progress, there is still work to be done.
“Harassment is the major issue,” she said. “The rate of harassment of queer-identified youth is off the charts. In some schools it’s getting better, in some schools it’s getting worse and some schools refuse to acknowledge that it’s an issue.”
Bullying in school based on someone’s status in a protected class — in this case sexual orientation — qualifies as harassment, according to Vermont’s education laws.
Outright Vermont officials spoke to nearly 4,000 youths in schools this year about harassment. At the end of each presentation, the speaker encouraged each student to do one thing to make his or her school a safer place.
“It puts it in the hands of the students to really make a difference,” Murray said.
Rinkema said CVU has not had to deal with many issues of sexuality-related harassment or bullying.
“If anything, sometimes there’s some ignorance,” she said. “Kids will say, ‘That’s so gay,’ but it’s not being done out of intolerance, it’s being done out of ignorance.”
To combat the use of the word “gay” as an insult, the Gay-Straight-Transgender Alliance has peppered the halls with posters suggesting other words to use instead.
Rinkema said CVU generally has a safe climate, possibly because the Alliance has been active for so long.
“The kids here feel safe and they feel accepted,” she said. “Overall, I think the kids feel lucky to be here at CVU. It’s a wonderful school and a wonderful community.”