A Comprehensive Case Study of a Gay-Straight Alliance: Fostering Safe, Supportive Schools for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Students Open Access
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This dissertation studied a gay-straight alliance (GSA) in a midwestern, suburban high school, including the group's purpose, participants, and approaches to supporting students and engaging its larger community. This study examined not only the GSA's implementation, but also its larger school and district context including the experiences of and supports for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students in the school. Furthermore, to understand how the GSA is similar and different from other student clubs intended to create a safe, supportive school environment for potentially disenfranchised students, the study included a focus on two such comparison clubs. The primary research objective was to contribute to the field's understanding of GSAs through a detailed description of how a GSA has been implemented in its setting, given its school and district characteristics and influences. Moreover, with an understanding that GSAs and other student clubs exist within and interact with a larger school setting, the study examined the GSA's high school and district policies along with practices intended to create a safe, supportive learning environment. The evidence gathered--36 in-depth interviews including six with GSA members, multiple school and GSA meeting observations, 69 teacher surveys, 31 student surveys, artifacts, and documents--is integrated to identify findings and themes. This study examined why, when, and how the GSA was implemented. Key informants identified various GSA purposes, but commonly pointed to one: providing a safe and welcoming space for all ideas and people. Factors affecting the GSA's implementation at the high school included faculty and administrative support, its visibility in the school, student leadership, member recruitment and participation, and the quality of meetings. Second, the study examined whether the GSA affected the experiences and perception of safety and support in the school, and if so, how. The GSA's greatest benefits to students were in the areas of emotional safety, support, and empowerment. Finally, the study synthesized school and district policies/practices intended to create safe, supportive learning environments for students. The GSA is in a school with numerous practices intended to foster a safe, supportive learning environment. Furthermore, the district has a strong anti-bullying. At the core of its contribution to the literature, this study found that a GSA was still an important resource despite being in a physically safe school with significant support from adults and peers. The GSA helped to address a key need: providing a space for all students to express their true identity and experience emotional support from their peers, in particular for students worried about or experiencing negative family reactions to their LGBT identity. Other themes include: (a) LGBT students and identity seemed invisible--and the GSA itself has struggled with being visible in the school; (b) strong advisors and administrative commitment to the GSA supported its implementation; (c) large school size impeded not only student connection at the high school, but also GSA implementation; (d) staff recruitment strategies have helped to develop a supportive climate for students; and (e) district influence on the school has been primarily around physical safety.