Distributed February 13, 2003
For Immediate Release

News Service Contact: Kristen Cole

Case study of Massachusetts

Laura Szalacha evaluates safe schools plan for gay and lesbian students

Laura Szalacha, visiting assistant professor of education at Brown University, wrote her doctoral thesis on the success of the Massachusetts Safe Schools Program for Gay and Lesbian Students. Massachusetts has the only statewide program in the country.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — In a two-year evaluation of the Massachusetts Department of Education Safe Schools Program for Gay and Lesbian Students, Laura Szalacha [sha LAH ha] found more positive sexual diversity climates in schools that had implemented the program than in those without the program.

Szalacha, visiting assistant professor of education at Brown University, led the study for her doctoral thesis in human development and psychology at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education. She interviewed 1,646 high school students and 683 faculty and professional staff between 1998 and 2000. There were Gay-Straight Alliances in 62 percent of the state’s secondary schools at the time of the study, a figure that has since increased to 71 percent.

The study looked at the effectiveness of the Commonwealth’s four mandates within the Safe Schools Program for Gay and Lesbian Students: develop policies protecting gay and lesbian students from harassment, violence and discrimination; offer training to school personnel in violence and suicide prevention; offer school-based support groups for gay, lesbian and heterosexual students; provide school-based counseling for family members.

Students, faculty and professional staff were questioned on their knowledge of the official school policy, their assessment of the school’s sexual diversity climate in various dimensions, and their measure of the individual student’s behavioral comfort level with gay and lesbian issues.

Two factors appeared to contribute to the success of such programs in producing a safer climate in schools, according to Szalacha: faculty training in the program and a desire on the part of students for safer sexual diversity climates.

Despite arguments from opponents that the programs promote homosexual behavior, the percentage of students who self-identified as gay or lesbian was the same – 7 percent – in schools with and without Gay-Straight Alliances, said Szalacha. “There is no reason to believe this program does harm and every reason to believe it does good,” she said.

Szalacha also received a master’s degree in human development and psychology from Harvard, a master’s degree in theology-liturgy from the University of Notre Dame, a master’s degree in philology from Oxford University, and a bachelor’s degree of theology from the College of Saint Benedict. She recently presented her findings at Brown University’s Center for the Study of Human Development.