We, the students and staff at Avalon School in St. Paul, have been deeply disturbed by the recent rash of student suicides in neighboring districts and around the country. The Star Tribune’s recent article, “Schools Struggle with Gay Policies,” brought to light how local schools are dealing with this crisis. Anoka-Hennepin School Board Chairman Tom Heidemann’s words that “these are issues that can be dealt with outside the classroom” miss the point that queer youth need a supportive school environment if they cannot find that it at home or at neighborhood institutions. When none of these environments serve as spaces of refuge and affirmation, it can be suffocating and sometimes deadly.
Anoka-Hennepin School District’s “neutrality” policy fails to serve its students and staff. Though it has been stated that the policy does not extend to hate speech or bullying of any kind, it evidently has acted as a gag when bolder action on the part of teachers was needed. In addition, conversations with a supportive and sympathetic staff at school can literally be a saving grace for some students who are in the midst of understanding their identities. When teachers are forbidden from voicing messages of love and acceptance, what message is sent?
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One of the reasons these recent suicides have been so disturbing to the Avalon community is because of the support we regularly feel during our middle and high school years of growth and learning. At Avalon, being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender is embraced as part of the unique tapestry of the human experience. There are few instances of bullying or harassment, for any reason, and certainly none that would lead students to suicide. We have the privilege to be who we are, with no exceptions. This should be a right. It is in this spirit that we extend a personal invitation to attend Avalon School to any middle or high school student in the metro area who feels unsafe, unloved, or simply unwelcome in their learning community. We at Avalon strive to create a safe space where all people can be their genuine selves in order to grow and aim for their full academic and human potential. We do not profess to be perfect, but we do make a conscious effort to build a strong community.
For those who do not have the option to attend Avalon or a similarly affirming school, know that there are organizations and spaces around the metro that offer opportunities to get support and feel part of a larger community. These include: District 202 (www.dist202.org), The Canvas Youth Center (www.myspace.com/thecanvas651), Out For Equity (www.outforequity.spps.org), and Out 4 Good (sss.mpls.k12.mn.us/Out4Good.html). The internet abounds in sites like TrevorSpace (www.trevorspace.org) and The Gay Youth Corner (www.thegyc.com) that offer ways to connect to the larger GLBT youth community. Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” project on YouTube provides a different way of approaching the adolescent challenges that come with being GLBT. The bottom line is, you are not alone.
To reiterate Avalon student Ben Kercheval’s quotation in the aforementioned article, this is not a political issue but a human issue. Inclusion and compassion are not about pushing a political ideology, but about meeting the needs of human beings. We hope that this message will become clear to more people in the near future.
As we write this it is October 11th, National Coming Out Day. Many people live and go to school in places where they are welcome to come out and be who they are, but many still do not. Until the basic needs for community and respect are met for everyone, remember that all are welcome at Avalon.