By Dan Allen
As a new school year dawns, the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s OUT for Safe Schools (OFSS) program continues to provide vital assistance to LGBTQ+ students in the greater Los Angeles area and in school districts across the nation at a time when the rights of LGBTQ+ youth are being openly and aggressively attacked.
“The war against LGBTQ+ equality is currently being fought in the classrooms, bathrooms, and sports fields of our schools across the nation,” says Center CEO Joe Hollendoner. “OUT for Safe Schools provides essential support to teachers, students, and parents who are seeking to protect the safety of LGBTQ+ students, helping to promote their academic achievement and lifelong success. The Los Angeles LGBT Center is proud of this program and its national reach.”
Launched on National Coming Out Day in 2013 in tandem with the L.A. Unified School District (LAUSD) and the Gender and Sexualities Alliance (GSA) Network, OUT for Safe Schools is now a year-round program with reach well beyond Southern California. The concept is simple: staff and teachers in participating districts wear rainbow badges that display their willingness and readiness to talk to students and parents about LGBTQ+ issues.
“OUT for Safe Schools is definitely now a year-round program, with many staff wearing their OFSS badge with their staff badge every day,” says Kevin McCloskey, the Center’s director of community-based programs, Youth Services. “We encourage districts to use days like National Coming Out Day and Trans Day of Visibility as ways to continue the work of OFSS throughout the year.”
Some 37 school districts and other educational agencies around the country have now implemented OUT for Safe Schools programs, including districts in New York, Washington D.C., Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, Oakland, and San Diego. A full one third of LAUSD’s own staff, an estimated 30,000 adult allies, took part in the local program in 2015.
“LAUSD continues to be a very active OUT for Safe Schools partner, as they co-founded the OFSS program with the Los Angeles LGBT Center,” McCloskey says. “LAUSD has really embedded OFSS into their district’s values, and they’re finding new ways to keep the program fresh and engaging for students and staff.”
The Los Angeles LGBT Center prepares school districts planning to implement an Out for Safe Schools program by providing an online training course prior to launch.
“We also highly recommend and encourage districts to provide training to their own staff before anyone wears an OFSS badge,” says McCloskey. “We help districts connect with local LGBTQ+ organizations to receive that training. We then continue to support the districts each year by including them in OFSS partner gatherings, sharing of resources, and technical assistance.”
As legislative attacks on the rights of LGBTQ+ youth have increased in many areas nationwide, interest in the Out for Safe Schools program has also been on the rise. Unfortunately, not always in the places where it’s needed most. McCloskey says the increase in interest has come “mostly from schools that are already supportive of LGBTQ+ students and are wanting, in light of recent legislation in many states, to do all they can to further communicate support.”
Earlier this year, Florida passed its infamous “Don’t Say Gay” law, which bans discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in elementary schools. It is not yet known what effect it and other legislation like it could have on anyone showing allyship as part of an OUT for Safe Schools program. Florida’s only known OFSS participant, the Duval County Public Schools district, has dropped out of touch with the Center in recent years and may no longer be administering the program.
“This [‘Don’t Say Gay’] law is so new, it’s hard to know what implementation and consequences for ‘breaking the law’ would be,” says McCloskey. Still, he remains hopeful that the Center can find methods of getting OFSS-style support into the hot zones where it’s most crucially needed.
“We’re looking at ways to impact youth in those states with anti-LGBTQ+ legislation,” he says. “We recently got a grant from State Farm and are going to use those funds to put up billboards in three such states – Florida, North Carolina and Arizona – expressing the value of LGBTQ+ youth, particularly trans youth, and promoting Out for Safe Schools. We’re also looking for opportunities to reach more districts and educational agencies in these states through national conferences and other professional events.”