Johnson City Schools Director of Instruction and Communications Debra Bentley said the goal of these groups are to “provide a safe environment for every student.”
“We focus on how we can be responsive and vigilant for all students' needs,” she said in an emailed statement to the Press. “Science Hill High School has a GSA Club that was developed from student interest and has a teacher as a sponsor. This club, like others, has a designated space to meet. The club has been in existence for almost a decade.”
But only 31 percent of Tennessee students have reported having a GSA club in their schools, according to a report released Wednesday by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network that said Tennessee schools “were not safe for most lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) middle and high school students.”
The report, based on a survey, showed many LGBTQ students in Tennessee also “did not have access to important school resources, such as an LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum and were not protected by supportive and inclusive school policies.”
Among the most troubling findings in regard to LGBTQ student experiences in Tennessee had to do with discrimination and bullying within the schools.
Ninety percent of LGBTQ students reported regularly hearing homophobic remarks in school; 80 percent reported regularly hearing negative remarks about transgender students; 23 percent heard homophobic remarks from staff and 43 percent heard transphobic remarks from staff. Eighty-two percent of the students also reported harassment based on sexual orientation, while 71 percent experienced this because of gender expression.
Additionally, 40 percent of LGBTQ students reported being reprimanded for public displays of affection that did not result in the same action for non-LGBTQ students, while 71 percent of transgender students were unable to use the school restrooms aligned with their gender and 61 percent were prevented from using their chosen names or pronouns in school.
“This research makes clear that many LGBTQ students in Tennessee are facing hostile environments that lack many of the resources that make their schools safe spaces for them to attend,” GLSEN Tennessee Chairperson Justin Sweatman-Weaver said, pointing out that school officials across the state need to prioritize LGBTQ inclusivity in their systems.
When Dobyns-Bennett High School started its GSA group on campus before Tanya Cato graduated in 2014, Cato still experienced some of the things reported by the GLSEN survey.
“At Dobyns-Bennett, when I was there, the GSA was established. People would actively go to the meetings to tear people down and preach hate. Many times, the signs for the club were torn down and thrown in the trash,” Cato said. “So many people were bullied relentlessly just for loving people of the same sex.”
Local resident Brent Chaffin also said he was not surprised with the findings based on his experiences years ago.
“I went to Daniel Boone High School, and ‘unsafe’ is an understatement. I was regularly bullied for dressing and looking too feminine and for not being afraid to flirt with a guy the same way I would with a girl. Everybody made gay jokes, like ‘you're gay’ in a ‘playful way,’ but (slurs) were a regular nickname for me in particular,” he said. “I think the worst thing that happened to me was when a bunch of guys paid another guy to attack me. He hit me as hard as he could and then ran away.
“The faculty kept an extra eye out for me after that, but they could have been doing so much more from the beginning.”
But in Washington County Schools, Director William Flanary said schools have what they call their Encourage, Protect, Invest, Connect program in grades K-12.
“We know that providing a safe and supportive learning environment is critical to student achievement. As situations arise related to student safety, for any reason, we work with families, students and staff to find solutions that meet the needs of children,” he said. “Our culture, or at least the culture we are trying to build, is to never look at a child through the filter of whatever subgroup or minority group they might represent.
“Children are children in Washington County. All are welcome, and all are treated as equals.”