Gay-Straight Alliance hopes to educate teens
Group at Washington high school formed to support one another at tough age
By STEVE STEIN of the Journal Star
High school can be a tumultuous time for a student.
Nobody knows that better than Patrick Coughlin, who has been a high school guidance counselor for more than 20 years, including 16 at Washington Community High School.
"High school is when many of us form our self-image," Coughlin said. "I'll bet most adults remember how they felt about themselves during high school."
High school can be particularly stressful for a gay, lesbian, bisexual or transsexual student. In an effort to support those students at Washington, a Gay-Straight Alliance has been formed at the school, with Coughlin as its advisor.
Sixty-four students - some gay or lesbian, some straight - signed up to join the alliance, and a proposed constitution has been written. Coughlin discussed the alliance at this month's District 308 School Board meeting, and approval of the alliance's constitution is expected to be on the board's January agenda.
According to the constitution, the alliance's purpose is "to encourage acceptance and tolerance within the diverse population of our school, promote pride in our community, create a safe environment for all (Washington students), and educate the school community."
Also, the alliance will seek to empower students and "address the isolation of gay, lesbian and transsexual youth as well as address the concerns of heterosexual students or students who are questioning their sexuality."
District 308 Superintendent Jim Dunnan said he's happy about the formation of the alliance because it addresses a need of a segment of the school's student population.
"The club promotes tolerance and understanding, which is what we should be doing in a school setting," he said.
Coughlin said educating students and teachers about the problems GLBT youth face will be the group's main goal.
"According to some studies I've read, GLBT students are four or five times more likely to commit suicide, and are five or six times more likely to be physically attacked," he said.
While he said he isn't aware of any physical attacks at Washington, he has heard about name calling.
"Everyone deserves to be treated the same regardless of sexual orientation," Coughlin said. "I'm happy to see that our school has the foresight to deal with the needs of all of our students."
While the alliance will focus on supporting GLBT students, Coughlin hopes it can also help other students who could face harassment. For example, students who are heavy or short.
Coughlin said the idea for starting the alliance came from former student Lexy Whitman about three years ago.
"It took some time to get it organized," he said.
News of Washington's alliance pleased a representative of the Peoria-based Rainbow Youth Outreach, which has been holding twice-monthly meetings for GLBT youths ages 14 to 20 and their allies since July 21, 1997.
"Our organization was formed because there weren't any Gay-Straight Alliance groups at area high schools. Our dream is to have a Gay-Straight Alliance in every central Illinois high school," said Carrie Neff Andrews, president of the outreach's board of directors.
"The climate has changed," Andrews said. "We've come a long way, but we have a long way to go."
She says she's aware of Gay-Straight Alliance groups at Peoria High, Richwoods and Woodruff high schools in Peoria and Normal Community West high school.
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