The Society for Social Work and Research

2014 Annual Conference

January 15-19, 2014 I Grand Hyatt San Antonio I San Antonio, TX

Safe Schools Coalitions in the South: Organizational Case Studies

Friday, January 17, 2014
HBG Convention Center, Bridge Hall Street Level (San Antonio, TX)
* noted as presenting author
Sarah R. Young, MSW, Doctoral Student, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, AL
David E. Pollio, PhD, Professor, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, AL
Christopher Rapisarda, MSW, Student, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor, MI
Background and purpose:  According to the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN), 9 out of 10 lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) students report experiencing bullying or harassment in schools (Kosciw et al., 2010).  LGBTQ youth in the South may be particularly vulnerable because of their location in a culture that is highly religious and rural in nature, two factors that may make protection of this population a challenge.  As school climate is not always supportive to the diversity and needs of its students, some states have responded by creating Safe Schools Coalitions to meet the needs of this population.  Even though safe schools coalitions exist broadly across the nation, little is known about how they form, function, and contextualize their work.   The purpose of this project was to explore the work of three Southern safe schools coalitions, and to assess their strengths, challenges, organizational structures. 

Methods:  Qualitative interviews were conducted with nine leaders of three Safe Schools Coalitions in the South.  Each leader was asked about the following broad categories:  1)  organizational history and structure, 2) communication 3) diversity, 4) Southern cultural context and 5) goals and challenges.    These interviews were audio recorded, transcribed, and codes and themes were developed from the transcriptions.  

Results:  Each of the three were founded through coalitions formed in response to a large gap in services for this population, identified by the teachers, counselors, LGBTQ youth and adults within the community.  There were key differences in the roles that LGBTQ youth play in the organization, with some organizations being youth-led, and others being adult-led with minimal roles for youth.  Each organization discussed both the importance of technology for organizing state-wide, and the barriers that technology poses to youth and communities who don’t have access.  Finally, groups discussed the disconnect between mainstream national resources and the messaging needed to discuss LGBTQ youth in Southern communities. Many participants described innovative materials, organizing methods, and tools adopted from national resources or developed by their members to advocate for social justice in a uniquely Southern way.    

Conclusions and Implications:  Safe Schools Coalitions are innovative, community-centered organizations that can expand protections for LGBTQ youth.  The results of this study highlight strengths, challenges, and needs of these organizations, and the unique contribution that the social work profession can play in community building and community organizing for LGBTQ youth.  This research reframes Southern LGBTQ organizing from a strengths-based perspective, which is key when the South is often considered a hostile region for the LGBTQ population and lacking in organizational responses to the needs of this population. Specific methods of adopting national resources for Southern communities and partnering with national organizations in a meaningful way can be applied to other underserved regions (such as conservative areas in other regions).  


Kosciw, J. G., Greytak, E. A., Diaz, E. M., and Bartkiewicz, M. J. (2010). The 2009 National School Climate Survey: The experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth in our nation’s schools. New York: GLSEN.