The name of a new program in three Springfield schools puts a fine point on its purpose.
It’s called Safe Space.
Some might puzzle over that name. For learning to occur, students should of course feel safe.
Reality says otherwise for students who face hostility and physical violence because of their gender identities or sexual preferences. The people behind the Safe Space program say that by creating a climate of acceptance and understanding, they are helping students in grades six through eight find their voices and build a sense of self.
We regret that there is a need for the kind of program Frankie Walsh manages at the Van Sickle Academy in Springfield. It is important that this effort, which focuses on after-school activities, is taking hold, at this school and at the John F. Kennedy Academy and the John J. Duggan Academy. Activists with the Springfield Pride Parade team hope to expand the program in other schools.
Walsh told a reporter for MassLive recently that young people who take part in the Safe Space gatherings are building confidence and a sense of community. That’s needed to counter the bullying and lack of acceptance that LGBTQIA+ students can face daily.
The climate of acceptance of individual differences may be relatively greater in Massachusetts than elsewhere in the U.S., where legislatures controlled by Republicans continue to ramp up laws constraining such freedoms.
Residents of cities and towns here in Massachusetts might think their communities are open and affirming – and many invest their time to ensure that’s so, through their engagement. We saw that revealed by Springfield’s Pride parade last weekend and similar events coming in Chicopee and Greenfield.
For LGBTQIA+ youth, school remains a battleground. Last month, reporting by high school students in Amherst revealed a climate of disapproval of trans students by staff members at the Amherst Regional Middle School. That resulted in guidance counselors being put on leave pending an investigation.
Hostile actions against gay and trans students can come out of nowhere.
School leaders must make it clear they will not tolerate bullying. When parents send their children to school, they have a right to expect safe spaces for all.
Until then, programs like that created this year in Springfield are needed. This work is carving out zones where young people discriminated against for who they are can understand what they’re up against. Together, they find strength, resolve and healing.