St. John’s Safe Zone Program is emerging on campus as an alternative to a gay-straight alliance. The program was created to support lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning students within the context of a Catholic and Vincentian mission, according to the University’s website.
For the third time since April, an all day training program will be held for faculty and administrators that want to become an “ally.” The Safe Zone’s website describes an ally as an administrator or faculty member that is willing to assist students who need support.
The program has 25 trained allies so far.
Dr. Kathryn Hutchinson, senior associate vice president for Student Affairs, worked with the students that initially proposed starting a gay-straight alliance on campus.
“We sat down and said, ‘we hear you,’ to the students,” Hutchinson said. “We hear that there is a need and we wanted to find the best way to meet that need.”
Pam Shea-Byrnes, vice president for University Ministry and Events was also a part of the process.
“It’s been positive working with these student leaders. They have been so understanding with us,” Shea-Byrnes said. “They worked hard to try to understand how to work within the mission statement of the university.”
The program has been in the works since last fall. Research and review of Catholic doctrine was necessary in developing a manual and training program for allies, according to Shea-Byrnes.
“To prepare for Safe Zone training, we reviewed the church’s documents and writings on homosexuality,” Shea-Byrnes said. “We tried to understand them [doctrines] and where they fit in with today’s society.”
According to the mission statement listed on the University’s website, St. John’s strives to respect “the rights and dignity of every person.” Shea-Byrnes described the compromise necessary to uphold the mission.
“STJ is not ours to change if we want to call ourselves Catholic and Vincentian,” she said. “We are a part of a world-wide community and we can’t presume to change what the church teaches.”
“We own our Catholic identity in the midst of this mixed community,” she said.
Safe Zones is designed to combat incidents of homophobic remarks and potential isolation of LGBTQ students, according to its website. A list of the trained allies is also available on the webpage.
The webpage encourages students that wish to talk with an ally to “feel free to email or phone their offices.”
Ally training is one day long and runs from 9 am to 4 pm. Allies can then choose if they want their information displayed online. Hutchinson called the training a “sizeable commitment.”
The Safe Zone program can be found in many schools across the country. Hutchinson described its loose structure as beneficial because it allows flexibility.
“The goal has been to make sure people are safe, welcome, and at home,” she said. “Last year we thought, if we’re doing this, we’re doing it right.”
“In the real world, there’s compromise. That doesn’t mean that everyone is 100% happy,” Hutchinson said. “We recognize that with some of the integration efforts, we are at the cusp. We try to put it all into the fabric of the University.”
Senior Shreshth Jain spoke out about the importance of recognizing the LGBTQ community on campus.
“It’s important to foster the acceptance of the LGBTQ community and to promote self acceptance and pride within the students who identify as such,” he said.
The Safe Zone program is emerging at a time when schools like Rutgers University are being criticized for their lack of anti-gay hazing initiatives. Jain said that in his experience he has felt the student body at St. John’s to be accepting.
“I haven’t experienced any hazing on campus,” Jain said. “The student body, in my experience, is very tolerant and accepting. I can imagine the situation being a lot worse for other students who are more readily visible in their differences.”