Program creates 'safe zones' for diverse campus

Mississippi State students struggling with issues related to sexuality and gender often find that they can discuss deeply personal concerns with Deborah Jackson without feeling judged or threatened.

An assistant professor in the university's department of counseling and educational psychology, Jackson understands the importance of finding a trustworthy person to talk with on issues related to the gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered communities--or people questioning their sexuality.

She is among more than 50 MSU faculty and staff members throughout campus now displaying signs identifying their offices as a safe area for someone who needs to discuss those issues. The signs are part of Safe Zone, a campus-wide program that encourages awareness, advocacy and respect.

The effort is supported by the Holmes Cultural Diversity Center, Delta Omega Lambda service sorority, Student Counseling Services, and Longest Student Health Center's relationship violence and outreach department, as well as other Division of Student Affairs and academic departments.

During the fall semester, Safe Zone participants attended a program focused on helping make the campus atmosphere more welcoming for all. They examined specific issues relevant to the LGBT community, including harassment, bullying, mental health and safety.

"The purpose is to promote a safe and supportive environment for MSU LGBT students, faculty and staff, and to build an educated network of allies in our campus and Starkville communities," said Jackson, also coordinator of the Safe Zone advisory board.

She said additional training is scheduled during the current spring semester.

Harry Hawkins is a graduate student in clinical mental health counseling and president of Spectrum, the student organization for the LGBT community. He said the training helps show how the land-grant institution often referred to as "the people's university" embraces diverse backgrounds and lifestyles.

"Having Safe Zone sends a huge message that faculty and staff do care about these issues and want to be a part of it," Hawkins said.

An MSU student who requested anonymity recently shared challenges she experienced while growing up and struggling with her sexuality. In the conversation, she mentioned bullying and threats, including someone putting a gun to her head.

"At the age of 16 and after serious consideration of suicide, I found a way to deal with my problems," she said. "My body now bears the scars of the years of pain I tried to cut away."

Educational institutions at all levels throughout the nation have worked in recent years to foster safe environments, some in response to tragic crises, such as suicides of a Rutgers University student in 2010 and a Buffalo, N.Y., teenager in recent weeks in response to harassment and bullying. Jackson said the Safe Zone program aims to be proactive in helping students at MSU who otherwise may not have known where to turn for help when facing difficulties.

For more MSU Safe Zone information, contact Jackson at 662-325-9840 or

Robbie S. Ward | University Relations

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