Niante Ricks was a few slides into “Bullying and discrimination towards LGBT youth in schools,” the PowerPoint she created for her high school’s senior seminar, when she paused and, almost imperceptibly, drew a deep breath.
The slide projected behind her anchored the “why” section of her presentation. There were supposed to be multiple personal stories illustrating the need for laws empowering schools to protect gay and lesbian teens.
But the three other seniors at Sci Academy who worked on the project with Ricks had other commitments that day. So she inhaled and explained that when she came out to her family in sixth grade, her mother disapproved. So much so that Ricks has been homeless off and on since then.
With marriage equality the law of the land, popular wisdom is that gay rights are now protected. But the changes in society have had a paradoxical impact on LGBT youth. Kids are coming out at much younger ages than in past generations, making them more vulnerable to harassment. And more are declaring their gender different from the one they were assigned at birth.
School, then, can be a daily ordeal where a child is brutalized or driven to suicide. Or it can be safe haven, particularly for someone like Ricks who is in need of adult acceptance and support.
“Being LGBT myself, I don’t want the youth that come up behind me to experience these things,” Ricks explained.
Sci Academy is located in an eastern New Orleans neighborhood that struggled with urban decay for two decades before Hurricane Katrina. Reconstruction has been painfully slow since the floodwaters receded.
In the fall, the school was able to move from the FEMA trailers where it opened seven years ago into a sunny and completely renovated building. In the months before graduation, all seniors participate in what’s known as the Seminar in Innovation for Change. They analyze a local issue of their choice and, with seniors from other local schools, make policy recommendations to civic leaders.
The last time Ricks, who is African American, gave this presentation it was to an all-star audience that included City Council President Jason Williams, state Board of Education member Kira Orange Jones, Sci Academy founder Ben Marcovitz and Alexandra Norton, the mayor’s director of innovation.
In short, people who might actually be able to act on the argument laid out in the presentation, that Louisiana must do away with its version of the so-called “no-promo-homo” law that limits what teachers can say to LGBT students. Ricks also argues that the state needs to adopt anti-bullying laws that specifically protect students based on sexual and gender orientation.
Finding a school that’s a home
Sci Academy is the highest performing of New Orleans’ open enrollment programs—schools that take all comers. Students may start here years behind academically, but an astonishing 98 percent are accepted to college — frequently very good ones — by graduation.
(Watch The 74 Documentary: Big Gains in New Orleans Schools After Katrina)
Ricks was not struggling when she showed up at Sci Academy—or at least not academically. She had been attending one of New Orleans’ eight selective-admissions charter schools, the sought-after Benjamin Franklin High School.
After she was pushed out of her mother’s house, Ricks ended up living 90 minutes from Franklin. To get back and forth she had to quit her extracurricular activities. Her GPA slipped to 2.1, commendable but shy of the 2.5 she needed to stay at the school for 10th grade.
From the moment she walked through the door, Sci Academy felt welcoming. “It felt like home,” Ricks recalled. “I was like, ‘This is where I want to go.’”
Ricks didn’t realize just how affirming her new school would be. Hostile state policy landscape notwithstanding, the school has a gay-straight alliance, a student-run club for youth who are gay, gender non-conforming or who view themselves as allies. GSAs, as the groups are called, are not nearly as common in Louisiana as some other places.
But the need is universal. According to a 2009 survey by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLESEN), nearly 85 percent of middle-schoolers reported being verbally harassed because of their real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. Nearly half as many were physically bullied at school; just 40 percent feel safe.
The posture of the adults in the building matters. Research has found a direct correlation between the existence of policies that specifically protect LGBT students and the confidence young people—gay and straight—feel that they are safe in school. (The 74: After Caitlyn Jenner, a Push to Protect Transgender Students in School)
Ricks’ presentation drew attention to the gap between the need and the reality. Only 18 states have laws that specifically name — or enumerate, as she explains — a student’s sexual orientation or gender nonconformity as deserving of protection.
Louisiana is one of eight states that prohibit teachers and others from saying anything affirming about LGBT students or that require negative depictions. Another two states, Missouri and South Dakota, expressly prohibit naming LGBT youth as a group which should be protected.
North Carolina just passed a law that eliminated local protections for gay and transgender people and prohibits them from using public bathrooms that do not match the sex on their birth certificates. As a result, the state is facing the loss of billions in federal aid for schools, highways and housing.
Neutral becomes hostile for LGBT students
Louisiana’s law prohibits teachers from using any “sexually explicit materials depicting male or female homosexual activity,” a narrower prohibition than some of the other laws governing schools but one that causes confusion and fear among the state’s teachers nonetheless.
The teacher leading the senior seminar, Jim Kline, is also Sci Academy’s senior dean of culture. He knew little about Louisiana’s prohibition before Ricks’ team began its research.
One common result of the “can’t say gay” laws and district policies is to make teachers unsure whether they can intervene in anti-LGBT bullying or what they can offer in the way of support when a student like Ricks is grappling with harsh reactions to his or her identity.
“The danger in sending a strong message of disapproval, intolerance and rejection is the child questions the meaning of their existence,” says Walter Roberts, a professor of school counselor training at Minnesota State University Mankato. “They sense very strongly the message that they are not wanted. And that fits into a sense of desperation and self-doubt and increases the likelihood of kids questioning what their future holds.”
In 2012, a group of students in Minnesota’s largest school district, Anoka-Hennepin, filed a federal civil rights suit claiming the school system’s “curricular neutrality” policy fostered an environment so hostile eight student bullying victims committed suicide in a two-year window.
From the point of view of the community’s religious conservatives — Rep. Michele Bachmann was the area’s congresswoman at the time — the policy prohibiting teachers from addressing LGBT issues was a compromise.
A vocal minority wanted the schools to refer students to reparative therapy where they would be taught homosexuality is a lifestyle choice. Practiced by Bachmann’s husband, among others, this “pray away the gay” therapy has been outlawed in three states.
The law Ricks hopes to see overturned has also been interpreted as allowing schools to depict homosexuality as a negative option individuals can and should turn away from, according to an article in the Cornell Law Review.
“In 1994, a Louisiana state court held that the policy was tolerable and that a guide book for teachers and parents—encouraging them to ‘counsel’ LGB students to make a ‘choice that best serves the individual and the community’ and ‘objectively discuss the wisdom of certain choices’ in relation to their identity—was not a specific attack on same-sex sexual practice,” Ashley E. McGovern wrote.
McGovern also called into question a defense of the policies frequently raised by school administrators that they are protecting students from the harassment that will ensue if they come out.
“Anti-LGBTQ advocates often argue that limitations on speech created by no-promo-homo policies are actually for the LGBTQ students’ (and their peers’) own good, because ‘coming out’ is inherently disruptive process…” she writes. “Several lower court cases have, using both First and Fourteenth Amendment guarantees, concluded that a student’s right to be ‘out’ outweighs a school’s interest in using silence or forced conformity as a means of ‘protecting’ them from other students.”
Nor, under a wide body of law, can parents demand that a school supply curriculum that reflects their values.
“Although families have a strong right to control the upbringing of their children, public schools have an arguably broader and stronger right to create informative curricula and give children appropriate and important information that may curb violence or hate,” McGovern notes. “Parents who challenge curriculum-based decisions in court are rarely successful due to the significant deference courts typically give to school boards and districts in creating curricula.”
And schools have good reasons to include affirmative information in school curriculum. In 2011, California began requiring schools to use texts that include and affirm LGBT people, different racial and ethnic groups and other marginalized people. Preliminary data shows students feel better about schools’ climates.
Change may come
Ricks and her classmates made two specific proposals to the community leaders who heard their presentation right before winter break. They want the state gag law repealed, for one. But beyond that they want the Recovery School District, which oversees the majority of New Orleans schools, to adopt a policy requiring all schools to have anti-bullying plans, to provide lessons on LGBT harassment and to create GSAs or other safe spaces.
The policy wonks that heard the students out gave the group high marks, ranking them third in the network behind a student panel with a plan for training police in conflict de-escalation techniques and one on harsh discipline in schools.
Whether the Louisiana legislature, which reconvened in March, will take up the students’ request is another question. Lawmakers in other states who have sought to strengthen anti-bullying laws or to articulate protections specific to gay, lesbian and transgender students have faced uphill battles.
Roberts worked for years to see LGBT youth included in Minnesota’s anti-bullying law. “The reality is where discriminatory laws are passed, they’re done so for purely political reasons,” he said. “Sometimes they are passed without any teeth to pander to political interest groups.”
As depicted in Ricks’ presentation, the Louisiana law’s ideological roots are every bit as cynical—something the lawyers would call animus. Former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, she noted, started his political career indifferent to LGBT issues, becoming more of an arch-conservative on the topic as he rose.
There’s reason to think changing societal norms may eventually prevail, however. Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network Director of Public Policy Nathan Smith says that it’s getting harder for the groups pushing new laws to win.
A bill introduced last year in Tennessee, where “no-promo-homo” is a perennial issue, would not just have gagged teachers but compelled them to out gay students. It failed, like it does every year.
Finally and possibly most important, Ricks and her classmates really do represent the future. And a safe space has afforded her the chance to catch up for lost time and then rocket ahead.
Over the last two years, Ricks has been able to increase her college-admissions ACT score from 19 to first 21, then 24 and now 25. She’s been accepted to four colleges, including Loyola University in New Orleans. She’s gotten good scholarship offers, too, but plans to take the ACT one more time in hope of earning a 27, which might sweeten some of the financial aid pots.
Maybe, just maybe, the ultimate solution is for Ricks to use her research savvy, poise and courage to secure a future where innovating for change moves from the seminar stage to the public policy stage.