Last year, the Lone Star College System adopted the national Safe Zone program to help make LGBTQ+ students feel safer. Now, LSC University Park wants to expand the program to include training for student allies.
The Safe Zone program utilizes stickers and pins to tell students that the space they are entering is safe for them or the person they are speaking to is an ally. The program also includes training for faculty and staff on how to be allies and “examine prejudice, assumptions, and privilege,” according to the Safe Zone Project website. While still in the early stages, the training for student allies will likely be similar.
David Gaer, faculty senate president for the LSC University Park campus, presented the idea to the board. Current data, Gaer told the board, estimates that around 10 percent of the population identifies as LGBTQ+. If this estimate is applied to the LSC system, which had 87,656 students as of fall 2019, that means there are approximately 8,765 students in the LGBTQ+ community.
“Our students need to know that when they are on our campus they are safe, so we will be providing more training,” Gaer said. He told the board that there was interest in training from across the system, including LSC Police Chief Paul Willingham for his department.
Safe Zone was piloted on the University Park campus but Safe Zone stickers and pins are available with each campus name, and training is not limited to University Park faculty and staff. Since it began 18 months ago, at least one individual on each LSC campus is a certified Safe Zone trainer, Gaer said, and 91 employees have been trained system-wide.
“There’s unique challenges that that student population faces and our program was designed around addressing that,” said Rich Curry, an associate professor of speech at University Park who brought the program to LSC. The certification for the training comes with a door sticker and a lapel pin to heighten visibility on campus. “That says to our LGBTQ students on campus ‘I see you, I support you.’”
The student ally program is set to follow a similar path. Eventually, Gaer and Curry want to see the program established at each campus. Like the Safe Zone program, the ally program will include visual cues for fellow students, like a luggage tag that can be attached to a backpack.
While doing more research about the effects of programs like Safe Zone, Curry found information about the high numbers of depression and suicidal thoughts in LGBTQ youth. he also found that for those youth contemplating suicide, they are more likely to turn to their peers for help, not staff or faculty, even if those faculty actively support LGBTQ students.
“They’re going to turn to their peers, that’s going to be their first attempt to reach out for support is going to be through the peer level,” Curry said, which is why he decided to start pursuing the idea of a student ally program. “We’re not asking them to be counselors or to provide any type of counseling or mental health advocacy. What we’re asking them to do is to just be that point of contact.”
Allies will be given training on how to respond to people who reach out, and information about resources that those students might utilize. Curry envisions that the identifiers for allies, possibly the luggage tags, could have a list of hotlines on the back, or other resources on campus.
While Curry and Gaer can’t definitively say that incidents of anti-LGBTQ sentiment have increased within the LSC system, they do recognize a rise recently in people feeling emboldened to share those views.
“People are feeling much more free to make comments or to bully or belittle people based simply on their preferences and orientation,” he said. “What we hope is that we can create allies for the students who not only work with LGBTQ students but who work with students who may have issues with that particular group.”
The student ally pilot program is being funded by a mini-grant from the Lone Star College system and will be run on the University Park campus this semester. Once the program training has been finalized and if the pilot shows success, that template can be applied to other campuses. It’s unclear how fast the program could spread across the LSC system, but if the success of the Safe Zone program is any indicator, training on other campuses could begin next year. Gaer said they have already found support for the student ally program on other campuses.