Last September, Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge in New Jersey. His death, one of several gay teen suicides last fall, led to nationwide campaigns against bullying.
Around the same time that gay teen suicides were making headlines last year, a couple of University of Memphis students were working behind the scenes on putting together a local support network for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students. That program — SafeZone — was officially launched this fall semester.
"SafeZone is a figurative metaphor for creating a network of volunteers to provide nonjudgment and support for all LGBT students, faculty, and staff," said Richard Scott, a U of M staff psychologist and coordinator of the program.
The program teaches volunteers how to handle situations that may arise on campus regarding LGBT students and staff. Those volunteers wear or display a SafeZone sticker on their backpacks, laptops, or, in the case of faculty volunteers, on their office doors. Any student experiencing harassment or bullying is encouraged to find a SafeZone volunteer for help.
So far, around 70 students, faculty, and staff have gone through SafeZone certification. Certification classes include information on suicide prevention, common barriers faced by LGBT students, faculty and staff, and available resources.
"For example, if a student comes up to you and says, 'I'm being verbally harassed by another student,' they need to know that the Dean of Students office is the appropriate place to refer them to," Scott said.
"SafeZone volunteers know what resources there are and refer appropriately," he continued. "They're not designed to be counselors. We don't want them providing therapy. We want them to send people to the campus counseling center."
Josh Edwards, a U of M senior and vice president of the Stonewall Tigers, the campus' gay-straight alliance, helped U of M graduate/former U.S. marine Timothy Smith organize the program last fall. The program was adopted by the U of M then, but it took several orientation sessions over the spring and summer semesters to get the program off the ground.
"SafeZone gives students, faculty, and staff a better overview of how to deal with certain situations," Edwards said. "There are things that happen in the classroom or on campus, and we can direct students to the correct resources. Or we also know how to take control of a situation where there might be bullying going on in a classroom."
SafeZone volunteer Caroline Melton, a U of M senior, hasn't been approached by anyone needing her help yet, but she proudly displays her SafeZone sticker on her laptop. Melton knows LGBT discrimination happens on campus.
"I know of situations where people didn't want to be roommates with [gay] people, and I've personally experienced teachers saying things that were not appropriate," Melton said. "It can be really scary for LGBT students to face those issues."
Scott said the program is still seeking student, faculty, and staff volunteers. Information on how to get involved may be found on the SafeZone website at memphis.edu/safezone/.