When people think of the Tennessee Equality Project (TEP), the first things that come to mind, of course, are marriage equality and partner benefits. TEP has been tireless in working for these issues and has garnered well-deserved attention for it. But TEP and the TEP Foundation has a much broader scope, with a vision for transforming attitudes about LGBT issues across the spectrum.

One initiative that deserves more attention is TEP’s SAFE (Schools Are For Everyone) Tennessee initiative, a program focused on creating a safe environment for all students in Tennessee schools. TEP’s early work in schools focused on the local level–“helping citizens work with their school boards to advocate for safe schools policies.”

But now TEP is fundraising for an effort focuses specifically on supporting safe schools, particularly for LGBT youth, in East Tennessee. According to the TEP, on its crowdfunding page for the initiative, “The only school district in East TN with an inclusive safe schools/anti-bullying policy is Knox County. Gay-Straight Alliances often struggle to form in East Tennessee Schools. Students and parents, in some cases, don't have the resources to deal with bullying.”

TEP’s goal is to fill a gap. There is no overarching organization in East Tennessee which could organize the initiative, so TEP is fundraising to create a position for someone who could tackle the issue. According to Chris Sanders, “The program would contract with a coordinator who works 6 months of the school year to form and facilitate safe schools committees in the Knoxville/Oak Ridge/Maryville area, the Chattanooga/Cleveland area, and the Tri-Cities.  The funding pays the coordinator, handles his or her travel, and allows us to purchase supplies for the committees.”

Under the guidance of the coordinator, TEP intends the committees to meet regularly, provide programming and offer resources and consistency, so that “students will be safer and have the opportunity to work with supportive citizens to change the culture and systems that inadequately deal with bullying.”

TEP does not intend to wait for the program to be fully funded before initiating it: while the cost for the entire program’s six month implementation is $3,600, TEP planned to begin the program when the $2,000 mark was met. In the last day, that threshold was crossed. According to Sanders, “$400 came in this morning from Nashville and $50 from Franklin last night.  That brings the totals to $1100 from the Village Fund and $900 from individuals for $2000.  We can start the program.  Next week we will start the search for the coordinator.  We still need to raise about $1600 to run the program for the full 6 months.”

The cause is viewed as too important to delay, but that means TEP is depending on the good will of Tennesseans across the state to see to it that this program is implemented fully and that our children in this underserved region are better protected. For more information about what you can do to help, visit the TEP Foundation’s MAKE EAST TENNESSEE SCHOOLS SAFE FOR LGBT STUDENTS page. It really can’t wait.

This article has been republished from Out & About Nashville, and was part of a series of first-person pieces written by the late Bobbi Williams.

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