BLOOMINGTON - When Jordan Becker was in eighth grade, she learned her first lesson about how gay people can be treated in the classroom and in life.
Three years ago, Becker was an openly gay student at Olympia Middle School in Stanford. She got A's in her classes and was president of the student council. Things changed, said Becker, after her girlfriend's mother contacted school officials about the relationship.
"The teachers pulled my friends out of class and said they couldn't be friends with me. At one point it got so bad the school had to call in counselors to help me," said Becker, now a junior at Normal Community West High School. At one low point during the ordeal, Becker said she considered suicide.
Becker's mother, Rhonda Becker, said school officials rearranged her daughter's schedule to separate the two girls. Teachers followed Becker in the hallways and into the bathroom.
"When she was kicked off the student council without a reason, that was the last straw," said Rhonda Becker.
With legal assistance from the American Civil Liberties Union, the school district and Becker's family reached an agreement that restored Becker's student council position and her class schedule.
But bitter feelings about the incident remained, and the family has since moved from the Olympia district into Unit 5. Becker helped establish the Gay Straight Alliance at the Normal high school. Last year, about 20 students attended meetings of the group, which helps students explore sexual orientation issues, she said.
"Looking back, I realize that no one should have to go through what I went through," said Becker.
As Olympia's new superintendent, Brad Hutchinson was not involved in the handling of Becker's case.
The district does not condone abuse of students for any reason, he said.
"Anything that's disrespectful to people or done to harm an individual in any way would not be acceptable," said Hutchinson.
The number of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students, referred to collectively as GLBT, is a growing segment of the school population. National studies on the treatment of GLBT students indicate that bullying and harassment of GLBT students by their classmates is common.
According to the 2005 National School Climate Survey conducted by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, 37.8 percent of students experienced physical harassment at school on the basis of sexual orientation and 26.1 percent on the basis of how they express their gender. Nearly one-fifth, or 17.6 percent, of students had been physically assaulted because of their sexual orientation, and 11.8 percent were assaulted because of their gender expression.
The 2005 school survey, which focused on ensuring safety for all students, also showed that GLBT students were five times more likely than the general population to skip school because of safety concerns, and they were twice as likely to report that they were not pursuing any post-secondary education.
Mathew Clark, a former student at Bloomington Junior High School, said he was tripped on the soccer field and ridiculed by other students after he disclosed that he was gay. He will be attending a new school this fall where he hopes things are better.
"I want the kids to be more open and accepting. Hopefully, if something ever does happen, the staff won't feed it but stop it," said the eighth-grader.
District 87 Superintendent Robert Nielsen declined to comment on the specifics of Clark's situation. "I can assure you that every time something was reported to the administration, it was handled appropriately," said Nielsen.
Teaching children to respect one another is a goal that begins on a child's first day at school, according to Unit 5 Superintendent Gary Niehaus. Students are taught that name calling, including names that relate to a person's sexual orientation, is not acceptable, he said.
"Part of the process of diversity is getting to know the person next to us and treating them respectfully," said Niehaus.
Unit 5 principals collect data several times a month on incidents of bullying and other troubling behaviors, he said, as part of the district's Positive Behavioral Intervention System. Among other behaviors, the program helps children understand what language is acceptable, he said.
In District 87, Nielsen said the district's population grows more diverse every year. Several programs, including Character Counts, focus on teaching students to respect their peers.
"We try to educate kids that being different is not bad," said Nielsen.
The District 87 superintendent acknowledged that schools are not the major influence in many children's lives. If parents express opinions about GLBT people and other minorities that are contrary to what is taught in the classroom, the school's job is more difficult, said Nielsen.
"We do everything in our power to teach respect. The reality is that students may get a different message at home," said Nielsen.
The Diversity Project, with its membership of McLean County students from seventh grade through high school, encourages dialogue on many topics. Project director Jeff Schwartz said students have initiated discussions on gay rights issues several times.
"This is a topic that reminds me of race relations in the '40s and '50s. It would be a crime for it to be written off as such. I think (gay) kids really suffer because they don't know where to go," said Schwartz, also the mayor of Downs.
Among the support groups for local GLBT students is Bloomington's Open Door Youth Center sponsored by the Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays of Bloomington Normal and the McLean County AIDS Task Force. The downtown center, 313 N. Main St., is open Fridays from 7:30 to 10:30 p.m.
When it comes to the harassment and bullying of GLBT children, teachers and students must follow guidelines beyond the anti-bullying policies adopted by their local school boards. Title IX is the federal law that prohibits federally funded schools from discriminating on the basis of sex.
The U.S. Supreme Court has held that districts may be held liable for failing to address known harassment, including harassment by other students.
The federal law also prohibits sexual harassment based on a student's failure to conform to stereotypical notions of masculinity and femininity, according to an opinion from the U.S. Department of Education.
Since the first Gay-Straight Alliance was formed in 1998, 3,577 student-led clubs have registered with the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network.
Illinois has 139 GSAs, putting the state among the top five states with clubs. The clubs work to address anti-LGBT name-calling and harassment in their schools and promote respect for ALL students.
Source: Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network
The impact of bias against gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender students in schools:
- 39 percent of GLBT students reported physical harassment at school
- 55 percent of transgender youth said they were physically harassed
- 64 percent of GLBT students reported feeling unsafe while at their school
- 84 percent of GLBT students were verbally harassed while at school
SOURCE: National Education Association,
for "A School Employee's Guide to GLBT Issues"