Cabarrus schools work for LGBTQ tolerance

Nearly 60 Cabarrus County Schools psychologists and guidance counselors participated in a training program last month to help increase tolerance among their schools’ diverse student populations – particularly toward their LGBTQ communities.

Welcoming Schools, a Human Rights Campaign Foundation program, was created to provide a toolbox of resources to elementary, middle and high school faculties to help reduce name-calling, gender stereotyping and other forms of bullying directed at LGBTQ youth.

The HRC Foundation is a national nonprofit lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy organization.

The workshop, which the Cabarrus school system hosted Jan. 16, was facilitated by Time Out Youth. The Charlotte-based charity advocates specifically for LGBTQ (the Q stands for questioning) ages 11-20.

Schools have always been fertile playgrounds for bullies, who like to kick at the dirt to unearth any differences they can expose and use to isolate their victims.

While ways to reduce bullying have covered a broad target in past years, some school districts – such as the Cabarrus County Schools and neighboring Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools – have begun to sharpen their focus on the unique issues of certain groups, like the LGBTQ community.

“For those who don’t identify as LGBT, often concerns are about homework and classes and getting into a good college,” said Todd Rosendahl, director of school outreach at Time Out Youth Center. “LGBT students may have concerns about physical safety; concerns about being open about who they are to their family and in their schools.”

In 2011, the National School Climate Survey reported that 82 percent of LGBT youth experienced bullying in the previous year, and 64 percent felt unsafe in their schools. Multiple studies show that LGBTQ youth have higher rates of substance abuse and homelessness, often stemming from rejection by family and peers.

Time Out Youth began its school outreach program three years ago. Since then, the nonprofit has seen an uptick in the number of kids confiding that they question their sexual identity.

“For some of them, they may eventually end up identifying as gay or lesbian or transgender,” said Rosendahl. “For others, they don’t.” What’s important, he added, is that they feel like they’re in a safe place while they work through those issues.

Schools, where students spend on average 35 hours a week, are beginning to offer some of those safe havens.

At Northwest Cabarrus High School last month, Rosendahl listened as students from the school’s Gay Straight Alliance Club discussed with each other the kinds of name-calling they heard in the halls, prompting the club’s launch last fall.

The club is one of seven in Cabarrus County. Jay M. Robinson, Hickory Ridge and Early College high schools, as well as C.C. Griffin Middle School and Cannon School, also have GSA clubs.

The clubs and the training are part of a multi-tier system of support to help students who are struggling, either behaviorally or academically, because of being bullied.

“One of our strategic priorities is to make sure our environments are safe environments for all kids,” said Donna Smith, the school system’s executive director for student services.

Rosendahl said the three-hour Welcoming Schools program involves learning about the LGBT community, including LGBT terminology, concepts and research statistics. But it also focuses on ways teachers can deal with and support students who may be coming out.

“It’s difficult for a lot of teachers,” he said. “Many of them are supportive, but they worry about the backlash that they might hear from other faculty members and parents who might be upset.”

He hopes the training will open a dialogue about bullying that includes the LGBT community.

“Youth can be targeted for socioeconomic reasons, for their race, their gender,” said Rosendahl. “LGBTQ is one more that we hope more schools in the area are going to be focusing on.”