DEVILS LAKE - Jace Riggin hopes his former high school superintendent can re-evaluate his position on the harassment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered students at the school.

“The current environment for these students is extremely negative,” Riggin said. “Considering that LGBT-identified students are already at a significantly higher risk of self-harm and attempted suicide, I hope that the district will act before irreversible damage to a young life can occur.”

An event about LGBT students will be held Tuesday at Devils Lake High School after a survey revealed students didn’t feel safe revealing their identity if they were LGBT. North Dakota Rep. Josh Boschee, D-Fargo, the first openly gay person elected to North Dakota’s Legislature, is moderating a discussion with Devils Lake students and a former instructor.

Describing the current atmosphere as “uncomfortable” and “negative,” 81 percent of students said in a survey last year they wouldn’t feel comfortable revealing their identity if they were LGBT, said Riggin, who conducted the survey. Riggin, who is gay, also organized the event.

On Thursday, Superintendent Scott Privratsky said he wasn’t sure if he was going to attend the public event.

“I guess I’m comfortable with our school’s bullying policy,” he said. “If there are specific reported incidents of bullying that have not been addressed, I’d like to know about that.”

Survey response

Riggin, who is studying political science and communication at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota, conducted a survey of 167 juniors and seniors as part of a college course that focused on community-based research and advocacy.

He considered possible problems at his high school, which later led him to work with high school administration on a 10-question survey, he said.

“The surprising thing is that results were a lot more negative than I anticipated,” he said.

One student wrote, “People that have come out are bullied a lot more, even if it isn’t outright said that that is why.” Another wrote, “A student in class called an openly gay student a ‘fag’ and said that (the student) would burn in hell,” and the teacher who witnessed this didn’t respond or report the incident, Riggin said.

Privratsky said administrators investigate every report of bullying.

“If there was one, we would have investigated,” he said.

Sexual orientation is one of several protected classes listed in the district’s anti-bullying and harassment policy.

Several years ago, Devils Lake also adopted its own anti-bullying policy, which provides consequences for different actions, Privratsky said. Today, the policy is mostly relevant to elementary students, and cyberbullying is the main offense, he said.

But Riggin said the policies represent a promise to students that they can learn and grow in a safe environment, but failure to confront “LGBT-specific bullying and harassment is a failure to protect students.”

Policy, protection

Riggin suggested a policy this past spring that better protects LGBT students.

With the help of some University of North Dakota professors, Riggin developed a free program for the district that would give teachers the skills to intervene on incidents when necessary, he said. But the superintendent rejected it, “stating that the district would not take action on the issue of sexual orientation-specific bullying until required by law,” he said.

Privratsky said as the district’s anti-bullying policy includes sexual orientation, he feels it’s sufficient. Everyone is protected under the policy, he said.

“I didn’t recommend any changes,” he said. “It’s the same policy that probably 95 percent of schools in the state have.”

He said bullying happens everywhere - in the workplace, in society, in schools - and his district tries the best it can to teach respect and tolerance.

“We’re not going to say that we can stop all bullying,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a school district in the state that can say that. We do the best we can to protect all students.”

At the event on Tuesday, Riggin said students will be asked for their ideas.

“They’re going to get asked what they think should be done,” he said.

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