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Arkansas School Officials Ban Gay Student’s Story: Was It Really for His Safety?

The decision of a school district to ban the profile of Taylor Ellis, an openly gay student, is inciting outrage.The decision of an Arkansas school district to omit an article about a gay student in a high school yearbook is inciting outrage among gay rights activists.

Officials at Sheridan School District said that a profile of Taylor Ellis, an openly gay junior, and six other students will not be published in the Sheridan High School yearbook because school officials “must make decisions that lead in the proper direction for all of our students and for our community,” the school district superintendent told the website Arkansas News. Ellis’ profile included the story how he came out.

The site reports that Ellis’ mother, Lynn Tiley, said that she was told “administrators were concerned that the profile of Ellis was “too personal” and might endanger his well-being.”

If administrators truly are concerned about his well-being, their efforts are “incredibly misguided,” Daryl Presgraves, a spokesman for Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, told me.

GLSEN regularly monitors the challenges facing gay students in schools. In its most recent report on school climate for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students, released in 2011, the organization found that 82 percent were verbally harassed because of their sexual orientation while 18 percent were punched, kicked or otherwise physically assaulted.

The numbers, shocking as they are, actually represent a significant decline compared to the frequency of harassment and assault reported by LGBT students in previous years. Meanwhile, resources to improve the climate for LGBT students — such as the formation of gay-straight alliance clubs — are on the rise. That positive trend, the report’s authors wrote, “may now be showing a positive effect on school environment for LGBT youth.”

LGBT students who have gone public with their sexual preference do face slightly higher rates of victimization than their closeted peers, according to GLSEN. But, on the flip side, out students also “have higher self-esteems, lower depression and feel a greater sense of school belonging,” Presgraves said.

In Ellis’ case, coming out actually made his life easier, reducing the number of conflicts he had with classmates, his mother told Arkansas News.

“I can’t understand why my school was trying to force me back into the closet,” Ellis said.

I’ve put in a couple of calls to the Sheridan superintendent’s office to verify whether the decision to stop publication of Ellis’ story was based on his safety and what measures, if any, they have in place at their schools to support LGBT youth. If and when they respond, I’ll post an update here.

But Presgraves said “it should be common sense that you do not protect students by telling them to hide who they are.”

“You protect students by taking action to address a school culture that you believe is so hostile toward LGBT students that they should hide their identity to be safe,” he said.

 

Photo courtesy Supporting Taylor Ellis.

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