An advocacy and support group for the families and friends of lesbian and gay people has launched a new community-based safe schools programme.

Cultivating Respect includes training seminars for parents and allies, empowering people at local level to work directly with their community leaders and school administrators to protect LGBT students.

Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) plans trainings across the country next year.

“Too many students attend school in fear, and too few school administrators and leaders understand just how damaging a hostile learning environment can be for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender young people,” said PFLAG executive director Jody M. Huckaby.

Cultivating Respect is the very first programme designed to identify and mobilise a grassroots network of parents and allies to take an active role in combating anti-gay behaviour, policies, information and environments in their local schools.

“When children do not feel safe, they cannot learn, and their school experience becomes fraught with the long-lasting effects of unchecked hostility.”

The most comprehensive study ever undertaken into the experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students in the United States found they face widespread abuse.

GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, released the 2007 National School Climate Survey in October.

6,209 middle and high school students took part.

GLSEN said nearly 9 out of 10 LGBT students (86.2%) experienced harassment at school in the past year, three-fifths (60.8%) felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation and a third (32.7%) skipped a day of school in the past month because of feeling unsafe.

22.1% of LGBT students reported being physically assaulted at school in the past year because of their sexual orientation while 73.6% heard derogatory remarks such as ‘faggot’ or ‘dyke’ frequently or often at school.

31.7% of LGBT students missed a class and 32.7% missed a day of school in the past month because of feeling unsafe, compared to only 5.5% and 4.5%, respectively, of a national sample of secondary school students.

The reported grade point average of students who were more frequently harassed because of their sexual orientation or gender expression was almost half a grade lower than for students who were less often harassed (2.8 versus 2.4).

The research revealed that students in schools with a Gay-Straight Alliance reported hearing fewer homophobic remarks, experienced less harassment and assault because of their sexual orientation and gender expression and were more likely to report incidents of harassment and assault to school staff.

They were also were less likely to feel unsafe because of their sexual orientation or gender expression, were less likely to miss school because of safety concerns and reported a greater sense of belonging to their school community.

A third of students (36.3%) reported having a Gay-Straight Alliance at school.

Students from a school with a safe school policy that included protections based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity/expression also reported more positive results.

The PFLAG training includes practical information on fostering dialogue with local school leaders; approaching administrators about implementing safe schools policies; skills building seminars on language, policy and problem solving in schools and identifying and leveraging access points within the school community.

The programme is also designed to counter harmful, anti-gay campaigns by conservative advocacy groups, including attempts to infiltrate libraries with anti-gay literature and information on so-called “ex-gay” movements.

“It is critically important that students, teachers, parents and administrators have accurate, inclusive information and materials about sexual orientation and gender identity,” said Huckaby.

“Anti-family advocates are pushing an extreme, anti-gay agenda that seeks to mislead adults and ultimately undermine the well-being of the countless LGBT young people who deserve a healthy learning environment, too.

“This new programme asks those responsible for the well-being of our children to listen, think, act and be respectful of every member of our families.”