Creating a Safer and More Supportive School Environment through a GSA at John Marshall High School
In 2015, students at John Marshall reported experiencing biased and homophobic remarks at school. Some students reported skipping school to avoid negative experiences on campus because of this environment. School administrators knew they had to take action
When the new school year began, RSBD coordinated with school administration, faculty and the May Dugan Center to establish a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA), a student-led club that provides a safe place for students to meet, support each other, talk about issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity, and work to end homophobia and transphobia.
It was challenging to accommodate GSA meeting times since John Marshall’s campus is split into three separate academies with varying schedules. But through coordination and flexibility, a resolution was found for weekly meetings to commence.
GSA students participated in a number of activities over the course of the school year, including discussion groups and inner reflection activities. Students were encouraged and challenged to “learn how to be your own best friend” and maintain healthy well-being while learning how social and emotional health are connected to healthy and safe decision making.
As a result, students reported an improved school climate with decreased bullying and harassment incidents. Because they felt safer, they no longer wished to skip classes and the GSA was continued. This is just one example of how RSBD, school administrators, staff and students can coordinate with community organizations to create connected, safe and supportive environments in schools.“The weekly GSAs have empowered our young youth leaders to advocate, organize, and mobilize movement for a safe school … We concentrated on building friendships not only across sexual orientation and gender identity lines, but also across race, ethnicity and class lines.”
– Jennifer Shaw, John Marshall High School GSA Faculty Advisor
Partnering Fosters School Connectedness at Hannah Gibbons PK-8
In 2016, the Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) administered by RSBD indicated that during the school year: 10 percent of students in grades 7 and 8 at Hannah Gibbons PK-8 did not go to school because of safety concerns, 22 percent had been harassed or picked on at school and electronically bullied, 29 percent felt sad or hopeless and 29 percent said they had seriously considered attempting suicide during the 12 months before the survey.
Those alarming statistics called for proactive measures. That summer, the school’s new principal, Greg Adkins, made it a goal to increase safety and social and emotional factors by the end of the 2016-2017 school year. These goals would be measured by the CMSD Conditions for Learning (CFL) survey, given in fall and spring each school year to measure student perspectives on school climate.
The Anti-Defamation League’s No Place for Hate® (http://cleveland.adl.org/no-place-for-hate/) program was chosen as a means to promote school connectedness and create a positive learning environment. School administration and staff, RSBD, and community partner Cleveland Regional Office of the Anti-Defamation League were all involved.
Students participated in activities addressing bullying and cyberbullying, gossip/rumors, exclusion/inclusion behavior, and different treatment of students, parents and school staff based on ethnicity, race, religion, gender or sexual orientation. No Place for Hate events were held throughout 2016-2017, with elementary and middle school students participating in four activities.
By the end of the school-year, the school had made some modest gains in academic achievement and the school’s Social and Emotional Learning scale, measured by the Conditions for Learning Survey, showed a 14 percent increase in students’ perception of their peers’ social and problem-solving skills.
The increase in school connectedness justified additional activities for Hannah Gibbon’s students throughout the 2017-2018 school year. Building upon this groundwork, plans are underway to include parent and family engagement in programming going forward.“The No Place for Hate program focused students’ attention on the importance of treating others as one would wish to be treated.”
–Greg Adkins, Principal, Hannah Gibbons Middle School
Helping Students Feel at Ease during RSB lessons.
In 2017, Tameka, a CMSD 8thgrade student, was a little nervous about the upcoming Responsible Sexual Behavior lessons in her PE classes. She wasn’t the only student in the class who felt that way, given the chuckling and shifting around that happened when the lessons were announced to her class. Tameka said she and others wondered whether they were really ready for the classes and questioned, “Why do we need to learn this anyway?”
The teacher who was delivering the RSB lessons expected this reaction and patiently explained that her class could expect to learn not only anatomy and STD prevention but also valuable lessons like building self-confidence and developing positive relationships and healthy decision-making skills.
On the first day, the teacher guided the class through exercises to help everyone feel comfortable and respected while they were studying the unit on sexual health. This put Tameka and the rest of the class at ease.
Over the course of the next week, the class learned about abstinence, healthy relationships, informed decision-making, sexual orientation, personal safety, contraceptives and the transmission and prevention of STDs. The teacher always ended the class with a short preview of the next day’s lesson. Tameka said she appreciated knowing what topics were coming next, as it gave her an opportunity to prepare questions.
Tameka said she really enjoyed the classes and that she learned valuable information. She was especially moved by a film shown in class that featured two high school friends navigating the world of family, school, friendship, dating, sex and decision making. During class discussion about the film, Tameka raised her hand and said, "The video and our classes taught me the importance of making good choices, because one decision could change my whole life. Sex is a big responsibility, so I need to protect myself and make sure that I can achieve all my dreams.”
What do students learn in the classroom?
Actual quotes from CMSD students describing the most important things they learned:
“You can get HIV or STDs by any kind of sex.”
“Even if you’re only having sex with one person, getting tested for HIV is very important.”
“I learned that it is okay to say “no” and feel good about it.”
“You don’t need to have sex to be cool.”
“To be safe and never have sex without protection.”
“You can’t tell if someone has HIV/AIDS or an STD.”
“That if you have sex unprotected you can catch AIDS or HIV.”
“Abstinence is really important and before you have sex and you’re still a virgin make sure it’s the right person.”
“How to stop and think about having sex and be abstinent for a 100% way of not having a transmitted infection.”
“You should use a condom when you have sex at any time.”
“You have the right to tell anyone to stop if they touch you.”
“You have the right not to be touched on your private parts.”
“I learned about the importance of protection and how to prevent pregnancy.”