By Brandon Brown
With YSUnity absent from campus for the semester, showing support for the LGBTQ community is all the more important at Youngstown State University.
Part of the university’s way of doing that is holding LGBTQ safe zone training.
Safe zone training is an ongoing effort to make YSU a safer and more accepting place for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex and asexual, termed LGBTQIA, individuals. The training also focuses on strengthening allies to LGBTQ individuals.
Higher education institutions have long been ahead of society and law in the acceptance of the LGBTQ community. YSU banned discrimination based on sexual orientation in 1997 by amending its nondiscrimination policy.
Safe zone training has been offered on campus since 2009 in partnership with the safe zone Advocacy Council and the Division of Student Experience. This year’s safe zone training was taught by Carrie Jackson, a psychology professor at YSU.
Jackson said she got involved because she wanted to offer training to her psychology students. Once she was trained, she thought training more students and faculty could benefit YSU.
“We want people to feel like they are safe and visible, and the fact that LGBT groups are not very visible on campus right now, the campus is not presenting in that way,” Jackson said. “We want to encourage people to feel welcome and part of the community here at YSU.”
The event was attended by around 20 faculty members and over 100 students.
All faculty must participate in Title IX training, which covers discrimination on the basis of sex and rape, sexual assualt and sexual harassment.
According to Jackson, since Title IX is the only required training for faculty, she thinks turnout to optional trainings like the safe zone program could be better.
Students attending the training also had the opportunity to count the training toward their first-year experience credit.
Participants were taught about topics pertaining to LGBTQ people, such as gender, sexuality, privilege, misconceptions and vocabulary, then the forum was opened to questions.
Joy Polkabla Byers, executive director of campus recreation and student well-being, received safe zone training as well.
“I wanted to see how we could be further meeting the needs of students on campus,” Polkabla Byers said.
“By looking at the packed room, I would say we have a campus that is open and accepting to LGBTQ issues,” she said. “We just need to get the university to further engage students and I think we will be on the right track.”
Participants were also encouraged to share their own personal experiences or interactions with LGBTQ family and friends in an effort to remove stigmas LGBTQ people often face.
Once participants have completed the training, they are given either a sign for their office or a sticker for a door or window. This indicates the person has volunteered for the training and can be expected to have a level of awareness of issues related to LGBTQ individuals.
Eddie Howard, vice president of student affairs, said he hopes the training continues to grow.
“Our goal is as we continue to have these safe zones will not only be to have them in common areas but move further into academic areas around the university and make the entire university more aware of LGBT issues,” Howard said.
Carol Bennett, assistant provost for diversity and inclusion at YSU, said she also has plans to expand LGBTQ sensivitity training on campus.
“Universities across the country are making training and professional development more readily available in the area of diversity and inclusion as well as equality and social justice. We could possibly make something like that mandatory for faculty here,” Bennett said.
Bennett said while training like the safe zone program pertaining to LGBTQ students is important, implementing programs like full-day workshops or diversity retreats requires intense university approval and the process can move slowly.
“We have to be really concerned for folks in the LGBT community because that’s not their whole identity, and people sometimes need different forms of training to realize that,” Bennett said.
Safe zones or “safe spaces” have always been criticized, as some people feel there can never be a real safe space for marginalized groups of people.
In 2016, flyers were circulated around campus opposing Safe Zone training. At the time, YSUnity defended the training in a Facebook post:
“Safe Zone Training is aimed to produce a space where people can be free from harassment, humiliation and judgment. These Safe Zones are aimed to create spaces where employees, or in our case – students – can be themselves without feeling the need to hide an often significant aspect of their identity.”
While some could view safe zones as exclusionary to straight students, LGBTQ groups on campus are inclusive to all students of any background.
The Safe Zone training was well attended. However, there was only one announcement for the training on the sidebar in an activities newsletter sent to student and faculty emails.
While Howard said this was an unfortunate situation and not intentional on the part of the university, the office hopes to better announce next year’s training taking place in March 2020.