I Love These Advocacy Groups, But They Are Wrong

I generally try to stay on top of stories of LGBT equality, especially when they’re local.  A decent chunk of my twitter feed is dedicated to just that subject, so I was stunned when Thrack pointed out this week’s headlines from the Salt Lake Tribune, GLSEN, MSNBC, KCPW and LGBTQ Nation,  insinuating school misconduct in outing a middle schooler in Utah County.

So I read what I could find on the story and found myself mystified.  Surely there must be more going on, given the scary headlines about school teachers and administrators, but no, all I can find is that they did the right thing, and they’re being maligned for it.  It seems that some of the resentment stems from a Facebook page started about the student which contained misinformation, but nevertheless, it seems strange that no one is giving any reasonable suggestions on what the hell they wanted Alpine school district to do instead.

So here is what I understand happened:

  1. Some students at a Willowcreek Middle School were given an assignment that was described as an advertisement about themselves that would be on display in the school.
  2. The student in question decided he wanted to make his a coming out story.
  3. The teacher giving the assignment approved the ad, but made sure he understood that it would be publicly displayed and that he wanted to come out to the school.
  4. Ad was up.
  5. Teachers or teacher’s aides overheard other students speaking negatively about the student and his sexual orientation and was concerned about future bullying.
  6. Those students were called into administrator’s offices for anti-gay comments.
  7. Administrators also talked to the student about their concerns, stressing the importance of being able to talk about problems with both school officials and his parents (who are, after all, his legal guardians)
  8. Student told school officials he was not out to his parents, and was nervous about coming out to them.  He did not express any reservations that he would be in danger if he came out, based on all reports.
  9. He agreed that the school could bring their concerns about anti-gay bullying from other students to the parents, but requested he not be present at the meeting.
  10. Administrators apparently outed him to his parents to explain their concerns about other students’ behavior, but there’s no reporting on how the meeting went specifically.
  11. A Facebook page was created by apparent supporters that contained much misinformation, including an allegation that the student was suspended for coming out, which is untrue.
  12. News organizations and LGBTQ advocates jumped all over the story as a case of an evil school district outing a student to their parents; some coverage omitted that the student came out publicly altogether.  Bad, bad reporting.
  13. Student’s parents kept him home from school this week, without comment.

I admit, I’m a little irritated that there’s not more explanation about the nature of the student’s concerns in coming out to his parents.  Was it because he feared repercussions?  Or was he worried about religious guilt from his family?  Knowing Utah County, the latter seems pretty damn likely.  I’d really like to know why the hell his parents have kept him out of school; there’s some possibility of avoiding news, but I am personally leaning toward LDS family freakout.

But.  (And you knew there would be a but.)

But, schools operate in loco parentis  when evaluating risks and making decisions about their charges and have legal responsibilities when it comes to risks regarding students.  So unless there was an expressed risk or danger for the student in being out to his parents, the school did have to follow policies intended to protect kids from bullying and the disastrous consequences to mental health and even kids’ lives.  Let me be clear: this student does not have the same rights as an adult and is the charge of his parents.  Decisions about this student and the school legally fall to parents to discuss; I’m sorry but that is how our legal framework functions.

This is a case of the school:

  1. Allowing a gay student to be open and express himself as he chose.  He chose to come out.
  2. Ensuring that when bullying activity was seen, it was dealt with proactively so that we don’t have another dead gay kid.
  3. Following responsible steps that included discussing the problem with the student’s legal guardians.

Basically I’m still of the opinion that the school did the right thing here by trying to take anti-gay threats seriously, and they are being maligned for it because coming out is hard.  But you know what? We’re talking about a minor, who had already come out very publicly.

The student in question was incredibly naive in thinking he could come out to everyone but his family; it would have come to their attention at some point, and probably would have been worse.  Imagine another students’ parents snide questioning these parents about it; they certainly wouldn’t be speaking clearly and honestly about the youth’s well-being.  Knowing the anti-gay prejudice within Utah mormons, these parents would have brought in all sorts of anti-gay assumptions and behaved as it he was already sexually active, etc.  I grew up here and can vouch for the nasty rumor mongering.

Some have suggested that it would have been possible for the school to bring up concerns about bullying without mentioning that it was anti-gay bullying that they were worried about.  I can’t wrap my head around that implausible suggestion, but that is precisely what GLSEN seems to think should have happened:

Educators know that a safe and respectful learning environment is critical for ensuring the health and wellbeing of every student. It is important for school staff to first address the bullying behavior in any instance at school. Schools should not out LGBT students without their consent. Outing a student not only violates their right to privacy, but also could compromise their safety. Parents can be notified of their child being bullied at school, but without disclosing their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Taking away the choice for a LGBT student to come out on their own terms opens the door to significant risks including harassment at school and family rejection. Schools should be able to provide LGBT students with support and resources in order to make an informed decision if and when they decide to come out to their school community and family.

I can’t think of any parents I’ve known (not mine, not family not friends) who would accept no background on why a school feared bullying.  This student coming out as gay is at the heart of the kind of bigotry the school feared and wanted to stave off.  But I want to address some very specific points that they raise, because I really think they’re misguided here.

First, they claim that this was done without the student’s consent.  I don’t think that’s entirely accurate.  The school actually did not tell the parents until the student agreed; I also can’t imagine they would have ignored nervousness without at least asking if the student felt unsafe with his parents.  The entire point of the conversation was to keep the student safe; why would they ignore a potential danger?  Now I’m happy to change my stance if I find out that they did not ask if the student felt threatened by his parents with respect to his orientation, but nothing suggests this to me.  The school did not out the student to his parents because of malicious intent, but out of a responsible desire to protect.

Next we have the claim that minors have a right to privacy.  I can see some of that argument if the students are older, but we are talking about middle school.  The law recognizes no such right.  It doesn’t exist.  Any rights minors have are subrogated to their parents or legal guardians.

As to the last, this student did decide to come out on his own terms.  He specifically made the choice to do it, and the school provided support and guidance in association with that choice.  They also made sure he understood that it meant opening himself up to public criticism, so Willowcreek middle school made sure the student made an informed choice about coming out.   So again, the school absolutely did the right thing.

When the school discussed telling his parents, it was in the context of ensuring he could rely on family support if he started to encounter harassment.  It was to make sure he had a support structure.  And again, they got him to agree; he was reluctant, but coming out is hard, and he arguably had already come out.  I can’t imagine how a community like Lehi would not have managed to spill the beans to his parents pretty soon anyway, and it would be in a completely uncontrolled way.

So look, GLSEN, I love you guys, you do great advocacy work.  But you are wrong.

We want schools to take anti-gay and anti-trans bullying seriously, but when a school district does just that, they are criticized because those advocating strong intervention didn’t think through the implications very carefully.  What exactly, are school supposed to do?  Never contact parents?  Simply avoid contacting parents when a minor without legal authority tells them not to?  Can we also tell schools not to tell parents when a student is acting out if the student requests it?  What about it they’re worried about penalties from their parents?  How much do we hinder schools’ abilities to look out for their students?

Minors are not adults.  They have legal guardians who are responsible for decisions relating to their well-being.  We have protection mechanisms when students fear for their safety, but we can’t make exceptions for LGBTQ students that will undermine the very policies meant to help them.

So advocacy groups, own up to this one: the school is being responsible, just like you want them to be.

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