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Creating Safe Schools at Supporting Students, Saving Lives

by Rodney Rodriguez
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Thursday Feb 14, 2013

The 4th Annual National Educator Conference on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning, Intersex, and Ally (LGBTQIA) Youth is set to kick off at the Doubletree San Diego on Friday, Feb. 15. With celebrities from Hollywood and celebrities from the classroom, this year's conference, named "Supporting Students, Saving Lives," promises to be entertaining and educational.

"It is imperative that school districts take preventative measures to ensure that LGBT students feel safe," said Conference Project Director Vincent Pompei, who believes that proper training for teachers and administrators will empower and encourage them to take a more proactive role in creating a safe and supportive learning environment for LGBT youth.

The statistics for LGBT youth are well known but staggering still: up to 50 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBT, 84 percent experience verbal harassment and 20 percent experience physical violence while at school, two-thirds experience sexual harassment, and gay teens are three times as likely to drop out of high school or not pursue a college education.

Most tragically, this demographic is also four times more likely to attempt suicide with more than 30 percent of all teen suicides attributed to sexual orientation or gender identity.

Despite the harrowing data, many believe this epidemic is 100 percent preventable.

"To reach students in the classroom and truly get them to learn, we have to lower what is called the student's affective filter," said Christopher Nelson-Burger, a local openly gay educator.

Nelson-Burger explained that the affective filter is that "wall we put up around ourselves to keep people out." In order to get students to learn, that wall must first be lowered.

"Make sure they are in a safe environment where they can be themselves, where there is no fear or discrimination. That will allow the student to truly learn," he told EDGE.

The conference aims to do just that. Sponsored by San Diego State University's Excellence in School Counseling and Leadership, this conference is the only national educator conference to focus solely on LGBTQIA youth and has even recieved endorsements from the National Education Association and has been recognized by President Barack Obama.

Conference Honors George Takei, Thomas Roberts and Betty DeGeneres

The weekend includes keynote presentations, receptions, and awards as well as workshops, resources, and tools for educators. The official welcome will come from San Diego mayor Bob Filner and will honor LGBT allies and advocates including actor George Takei, MSNBC anchor Thomas Roberts, and Betty DeGeneres whose daughter, Ellen, has been one of the leading LGBT celebrities of the past decade.

"I am so happy to be a part of this most important conference," said DeGeneres. "It’s vital for counselors and teachers to have the training and sensitivity to step up when needed."

Entertainment for Friday’s ceremony and evening social features recent contestant De’Borah from NBC’s "The Voice." NOH8 Campaign co-creators Adam Bouska and Jeff Parshley will also be on hand for those wishing to participate in a NOH8 photo-shoot.

The real work begins on Saturday where attendees will hear from representatives from the National Education Association and the U.S. Department of Education as well as Tracy and Tim Rodemeyer, the parents of 14-year-old Jamey Rodemeyer who committed suicide after enduring anti-gay bullying, and Jonah Mowry, the bullied teen who was the subject of a viral YouTube video released last year.

On Sunday, 100 LGBTQIA youth from all over Southern California take over as conference-goers focus on youth issues and have the opportunity to learn directly from the experiences and insight of these teenagers.
Nelson-Burger believes that this is where the greatest opportunity lies for educators.

"Role models play a huge important role to youth," he said. "Everyone has someone that they look up to and respect. This should be us, as adults, creating a space of mutual respect where we can learn from each other."
He has advice for those educators as well. "Be as supportive as you are comfortable being," said Nelson-Burger, "because the student will know if you are not being genuine. But know that the student is coming to you because they trust you."

DeGeneres, inspired to be an ally after her own daughter came out of the closet, believes there should be no barriers to creating a safe learning environment.

"I couldn’t even imagine that [Ellen] would be an object of bigotry and discrimination," said DeGeneres. We should do anything and everything to rid the world of these negatives."

Hope is on the horizon. A recent study by the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network found that 95 percent of youth supported expanding hate crimes to cover sexual orientation as well as gender identity and that the average age one "comes out" is dropping, signaling that teens are getting positive and encouraging messages earlier on in life.

Pompei wants students to know that "it takes only one trusting adult to make all the difference in the world."

Nelson-Burger could not agree more.

"Know that there is always an adult in your life that you can reach out to, even in the darkest of times," he said. "Find them. Reach out to them. They will help you through."

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