ARTICLE

Saving the Lives of Our LGBT Students

If you are the kind of educator who builds a safe and open classroom culture and teaches with a compassionate heart, students will come to you. They will share their secrets. The culture you create in the classroom can often serve as an invitation for students to seek solace and advice outside of class. We have all faced the blessings (and burdens) of our students’ trust. A new study out of Northwestern University (where I teach) reminds us that we must be prepared for our students’ stories to come tumbling out.


L-R: Carl Walker Hoover, Eric Mohat, Jaheem Hererra
middle: Justin Aaberg, Raymond Chase, Seth Walsh
bottom: Tyler Clementi, Asher Brown, Billy Lucas
Image credit: Sunny Paulk

The culture you create in the classroom can often serve as an invitation for students to seek solace and advice outside of class. We have all faced the blessings (and burdens) of our students’ trust. A new study out of Northwestern University (where I teach) reminds us that we must be prepared for our students’ stories to come tumbling out.

The study asked this crucial question: “What protects lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youths from considering suicide and, conversely, what makes them most vulnerable to it?”

The answer is: “support from friends and family offers the most protection in preventing youths from thinking about suicide. Adolescents who know they can talk to their parents about problems and know they have friends who care about them are less likely to consider ending their lives,” according to the Northwestern research.

“Our research shows how critical it is for these young people to have social support and for schools to have programs to reduce bullying,” said Brian Mustanski, associate professor of medical social at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “We believe this will help save young lives.”

This information matters because these young people are “at least twice as likely to attempt suicide than heterosexual youths.”And it matters to those of us who are teachers because if students do not have that essential family support system, we may be the next line of defense. 

It happens quickly. You must have your wits about you. Often, you don’t. You’re fumbling around looking for a stapler that actually works. A student comes in, you drop a stack of papers, you’re gathering them up, he sits down. You look up. He’s sorry he missed class and the last two assignments but he’s struggling with some identity issues and … before you know it he’s tumbled deep into his urgent, disjointed story to which you must bear supportive witness.

No, this is not heart or brain surgery, but lives are indeed at stake. So we must hear with our hearts and minds.

It is a privilege to listen to our students. But there are rules. There must be rules. First, we listen for threats to self, others or if they are revealing they were the victim of a crime. Are you a mandatory reporter? What constitutes a crime? Was it a ‘hate crime’ or just a hateful interaction?

It’s a balancing act: gathering and offering information. We must build trust while establishing and holding to boundaries. What if your district cut all its resources? Where do you go, then? Find out.

With all the publicity of teen suicides and the powerful vortex of social media, more than ever, educators must be prepared for these conversations. What are the laws, protocols, procedures, resources, and standards we follow? Most of all, how do we keep our students safe?     

Cytrynbaum is a journalist and instructor at Northwestern University,