The ACLU of Tennessee sent a letter Thursday to the Rutherford County Board of Education urging for Central Magnet School students and teachers be allowed to reinstate “Safe Space” posters that had been removed from classrooms at the school.
The posters identify classrooms as spaces where all students can feel safe from bullying and harassment, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.
Members of the Central Magnet School Gay Straight Alliance student organization requested last year that teachers display the posters in classrooms. The posters, designed by Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, were hung without incident alongside posters from other student groups for the majority of the prior school year.
The poster states, “This is a safe and inclusive space for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students and their allies. All students deserve a safe and welcoming school environment.”
A copy of the poster in question can be viewed here.
“Removal of these posters is a violation of the free speech rights of students and teachers,” said Thomas H. Castelli, the legal director for the Tennessee chapter of the Americans for Civil Liberties Union. “Permitting some student groups but not others to display posters amounts to unconstitutional, discriminatory censorship.”
The School Board, speaking through its attorney via telephone, claimed that the poster’s content is of an inappropriate sexual nature because it contains the words “lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.”
The ACLU letter asserts that this is an “obvious mischaracterization.”
In the same conversation, School Board attorneys said that the poster is inappropriately political in nature.
However, the ACLU contends those claims are grossly misconstrued.
"I believe creating a safe school environment is important for all students. Anti-gay harassment and bullying hurts everyone, which is why I found the censorship of this poster particularly surprising and frustrating,” said Allen Nichols, social studies and history teacher at Central Magnet.
“While I hung the poster at students’ request, I thought it was important to do so because it shows that my classroom is a safe, supportive environment for every young person I work with," Nichols said.
Many LGBT students in Tennessee do not feel safe at school because of their sexual orientation. Almost 90 percent of LGBT students in Tennessee have been verbally harassed and 43 percent have been physically harassed in the past year because of their sexual orientation, according to a “2011 Tennessee State Snapshot.”
A hostile school climate can result in absenteeism, lowered educational aspirations and academic achievement, and poorer psychological well-being.
“Removing a GLSEN 'Safe Space' poster that promotes a positive learning environment free from bullying and harassment is alarming given that a majority of LGBT students in Tennessee report feeling unsafe in school because of their sexual orientation or gender identity,” said Eliza Byard, executive director of the education network.
“Every student deserves to feel safe in school and our 'Safe Space' posters, a part of our Safe Space Kit, play a vital role in conveying that very message," she said. "Students know they have an educator to turn to for support when they see our poster displayed in a school classroom or office.”
“Students have the right to be safe at school, and they have a right to state their opinion about that as well,” said Amanda C. Goad, staff attorney with the ACLU LGBT Project. “The school board needs to immediately reauthorize display of the poster and to ensure that such censorship will not occur again.”