When it comes to anti-bullying legislation, Colorado schools are ahead of the pack
Gay kids in Colorado are among the most protected in the nation. Last year, legislators expanded the state's bullying-prevention law to prohibit the bullying of students based on several specific characteristics, including sexual orientation. The revisions make Colorado one of fourteen states to explicitly protect gay students; the revised law also updates the definition of bullying to include cyber-bullying and creates a donation-funded grant program for anti-bullying programs in school districts.
Districts are encouraged to align their own policies with the revised law. John Albright, deputy chief of staff for Denver Public Schools, says he believes Denver's bullying policy already conforms to state law; the DPS harassment policy, for instance, includes specific protections for students based on their sexual orientation and gender identity. However, Albright also says that DPS is in the midst of ensuring that LGBT students are included every time so-called protected classes are mentioned in the district's policies.
The other new part of the state law — the grant program — isn't yet up and running, but there are other sources of funding. Since 2010, the Denver-based Gill Foundation, one of the nation's largest funders of LGBT causes, has donated $350,000 for bullying prevention to the education-focused Colorado Legacy Foundation for trainings, technical assistance and grants to individual school districts. DPS was one of the first beneficiaries: Last summer, Denver won a $10,000 grant to expand the number of Gay-Straight Alliances, or GSAs, in its public schools.
"We know healthy kids learn better, and we also know it's unhealthy for students to feel unsafe," says Heather Fox, vice president of communications for the Colorado Legacy Foundation. She quotes these oft-cited statistics from a 2009 GLSEN survey: 87 percent of Colorado's LGBT students reported being verbally harassed at school, almost a third reported being physically assaulted, and 69 percent were sexually harassed.
GSAs are student clubs supervised by teachers or counselors, and they've been shown to make kids feel safer, whether they participate in them or not. Before this year, DPS had about eight active GSAs. The grant helped start eleven more, says Ellen Kelty, a school psychologist who works on bullying and suicide prevention for DPS; she notes that two more GSAs are forming at the Academy of Urban Learning and Cole Arts and Science Academy. The $10,000 grant paid to train staff from 28 schools on how to start and sustain a GSA and for materials to help them do so. "A lot of our staff has a passion for serving all kids and was on board right away," Kelty notes.
DPS isn't the only school district increasing its number of GSAs. Several others around the state have done so with help from the Colorado GSA Network, an initiative of the LGBT advocacy organization One Colorado. Funded by a different grant from the Gill Foundation, the network was led this past school year by Daniel Ramos, a recent University of Colorado graduate. Since One Colorado launched last August, Ramos reports, the network has trained 1,600 educators across Colorado in bias-based bullying prevention and intervention strategies. "Part of it is training adults," Ramos says, "and letting adults know that starting a Gay-Straight Alliance or a student club at their school is a strategy to make students feel safer."
One Colorado has helped start 97 GSAs across Colorado, bringing the total number in the state to about 150 in middle and high schools and colleges. Last year, there were no GSAs on the Western Slope, for example; today there are four.
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