Big steps forward for LGBT students and friends in Savannah, Tenn.

After the Southern Poverty Law Center responded to a plea for help from students in Savannah, Tenn., we’re happy to report that students successfully wore pro-LGBT slogans at school last week without resistance and with mostly positive responses from classmates.

Students are leading the way for positive change in this small community, which many local gay people have described as unaccepting.

This welcome news comes after Isabella Nuzzo, a senior at Hardin County High School, wrote about her classmates’ struggle for freedom of speech. It began last spring when a student was forced to reverse her T-shirt with the slogan, “Lesbian and Proud.” A school official claimed that the shirt violated the dress code banning clothing with messages promoting sex.

On Isabella’s behalf, the Southern Poverty Law Center demanded that the school district respect the students’ rights to freedom of expression. School board attorneys agreed to allow the display of pro-LGBT slogans.

Isabella’s victory was big news locally. It also caught the attention of a church group. Just before this school year began, the group advertised free T-shirts with slogans such as "PROUD TO BE PRO-MARRIAGE, GOD DEFINES MARRIAGE!” Other T-shirts also appeared on campus.

One student wore a T-shirt advertising a “race for the cure” with a list of diseases such as cancer. But “homosexuality” also was prominently listed. Another student reportedly wore a T-shirt with the message: “Stop, Drop, and Roll Will Not Help You in Hell!” A girls’ restroom was recently defaced with anti-LGBT graffiti. And a student also was shoved for supporting LGBT people.

This sort of hostility isn’t new to LGBT students. “I’m gay, and I’ve been called fag, queer, fruity,” one Hardin County High School student wrote on Facebook. “I’ve been through bullying. And frankly the only reason it stopped is because my nephew died and everyone felt sorry for me.”

Not surprisingly, some LGBT students have opted for home schooling to avoid this hostility. Isabella, who is straight, and her friends decided to take a stand for a respectful, inclusive school environment last week. They wore pro-LGBT slogans such as “Gay, Fine By Me” to school on Aug. 15. Initially, about 15 district students participated, but other students soon joined the effort.

Isabella, a member of the student government, said about 13 people approached her during the day to ask how they could get a similar shirt. Some students heard negative comments about their shirts, but responses were mostly positive.

The SPLC stands with these LGBT students and their allies who are courageously speaking out for equality, human dignity and schools where all students are respected. They are performing a critical service to other LGBT students who suffer in silence.

One student leader posted this message online: “I don't think I've ever felt so accomplished in my life!!"

Students can play powerful roles in standing up against intolerance and anti-LGBT bias. But the burden must not rest on them alone. We call on school officials in Hardin County to take effective, evidence-based measures to address anti-LGBT hostility that continues to fester in the district’s schools.

Research shows that zero-tolerance policies are not the way to go; neither is sitting back and waiting to respond to individual, isolated reports of specific harassment. Students, of course, are entitled to their beliefs about LGBT equality. But all students should be welcome at school. They’re also due dignity and respect. Hardin County schools need to take an active, systemic approach to instill this message throughout the district.

Quite simply, everyone has a right to be who they are, including gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender students. And school officials have a legal duty to adequately address anti-LGBT hostility. LGBT students deserve an equal opportunity to succeed in the classroom. They are as much a part of the community as any other student. They are Hardin County. They also are its future.

If the Facebook message from a bullied high school student is any indication, the future will be bright. “So my message to everyone going through bullying is to stay strong, fight back, be yourself, don’t hide that person inside you that is the true you, let them shine,” the student wrote. “Nobody can bring you down. Stand up for what you believe. Because you have every right to be who you are.You are beautiful.”

It’s time for school officials in Hardin County to take that message to heart.