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A Utah County middle school's decision to out a gay student to his parents has sparked criticism from advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youths.
Alpine School District has received emails and phone calls from many in the LGBT community nationwide since a Facebook page was created to protest the incident at Willowcreek Middle School in Lehi, said district spokeswoman Rhonda Bromley. But Bromley said much of the criticism is a response to false claims made on the Facebook page, including that the student was suspended for being open about his sexual orientation at school.
Parents were notified that their 14-year-old son is gay, she said, because the school was being "proactive" in preventing bullying. The student was not disciplined at school, she said, but his parents, who have asked that their names not be released to media, have decided to keep him home until attention surrounding the issue dies down. The student plans to return to school after winter break.
"We do include parents any time there's a potential safety issue with a student," Bromley said.
Valerie Larabee, director of the Utah Pride Center, said she was "disturbed" by the incident.
"It's important to me that school officials deal with bullying issues and don't cause another problem for the child by outing him to his parents," she said. "That conversation can be really devastating to young people when their family rejects them. Once you've uttered the words, 'I'm gay,' your home life can change forever."
LGBT youths who experience high levels of family rejection are eight times more likely to attempt suicide, six times more likely to experience depression, and three times more likely to use illegal drugs than those who don't, according to a recent study published in the medical journal Pediatrics.
But Bromley said this student's parents have been "very supportive" of their son. "That is their No. 1 concern right now, to help him feel safe and help him feel supported."
Last week, the eighth-grade student began letting classmates know that he is gay, including by noting it in a class assignment in which students created advertisements about themselves. A teacher consulted with him to make sure he wanted it displayed in class with all the other students' posters, and he said he did. Later, an adult aide overheard other students making negative comments to the boy about being gay. An assistant principal admonished the students for their comments.
The administrator also talked to the gay student, who confirmed he is gay but said he had not told his parents, Bromley said. The administrator discussed the need for the boy to be able to feel safe talking to teachers and his parents about any problems he may have.
"He was nervous about [telling his parents]. He initially said, 'No, that can't happen.' She talked to him. He finally agreed reluctantly," Bromley said. But the student insisted on not being in the room when the administrator told his parents he's gay.
On Wednesday, the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network issued a statement saying schools should not out students without their consent.
"Outing a student not only violates their right to privacy, but also could compromise their safety. Parents can be notified of their child being bullied at school, but without disclosing their sexual orientation or gender identity," said GLSEN Executive Director Eliza Byard. "Taking away the choice for an LGBT student to come out on their own terms opens the door to significant risks including harassment at school and family rejection. Schools should be able to provide LGBT students with support and resources in order to make an informed decision if and when they decide to come out to their school community and family."
More on anti-gay bullying
The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) surveys LGBT teens nationwide every two years. The 2009 survey of 7,621 middle and high school students found:
85 percent • Experienced verbal harassment at school.
19 percent • Had been punched, kicked or injured with a weapon because of their sexual orientation.
29 percent • Missed a class at least once because of safety concerns.