Governor Tom Vilsack convened a conference at Drake University this (Tuesday) morning to talk about the harassment gay, lesbian, bisexual and “transgender” kids face in school. “It seems to me that every one of us in this room have I suspect has had at some point in time an experience in their life where they have felt fear and anxiety,” Vilsack says. “That’s really what we’re talking about — creating an environment where people do not feel fear and anxiety.”

Vilsack has been pressuring the legislature to pass a bill that would force Iowa schools to write anti-bullying policies directly addressing and forbidding harassment against gay students. “This is a tough issue. A lot of folks don’t like to talk about. A lot of folks would prefer not to be confronted with it,” Vilsack says. “I want children to be able to go to school excited to be there. I want them to feel accepted accepted for who they are. I want our state to sort of blaze a new trail of tolerance and compassion.”

The governor told today’s gathering he was bullied as a kid going to a parochial school in Pittsburgh, and Vilsack recounted one night after a Boys Scout’s meeting when Tom Vilsack, the sixth-grader, was confronted by a dozen gang members. “These were people (who) were a lot older than I was. They were people who had guns and knives and I remember feeling fear, real fear, for the first time in my life,” Vilsack says. “I remember being pushed and shoved during that experience and I remember leaving feeling thankful that I had survived, that I hadn’t been hurt and I decided that I was never going to go back to that place again.”

About five-hundred people — teachers, administrators and students — are attending the conference. Judy Shepard, the mother of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student killed in a 1998 hate crime in Wyoming, will be this evening’s keynote speaker. She also supports state laws which force schools to have anti-bullying rules to protect gay students. “These students are too often the targets of name-calling, violence and much worse in our schools and communities,” Shepard says. “Your attendance here today means you recognize that LGBT youth are facing unsafe and hostile environments every day.”

Shepard says the words used to ridicule gay students are hateful. Shepard says those words “often lead to much worse when they pass by unchallenged.” Drake University president David Maxwell says all Iowans should be concerned about the harassment lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students face in school. “The data on the percentage of LGBT students who are harassed verbally and physically are frightening,” Maxwell says. “Equally frightening is the impact of that hostile environment on these students: the emotional and physical toll, the effect on academic success and the effect on college-going rates.”

Maxwell says human beings tend to be fearful of people they perceive as being “different.” Maxwell says “to our great collective shame” that fear of differences often manifests itself in aggressive behavior. He says that’s particularly the case among adolescents because their insecurities and lack of self-knowledge “conspire” to make differences “all the more frightening.”

Seventy-seven Iowa school districts have written policies which forbid harassment or bullying based on “sexual orientation” while two-hundred-90 do not. Here is a list of the 77 districts: Akron Westfield, Algona, Ames, Anamosa, Anthon-Oto, Ballard, Baxter, Belle Plaine, Boone, Brooklyn-Guernsey-Malcom, Burlington, Calamus-Wheatland, Cedar Falls, Cedar Rapids, Central Lyon, Clear Lake, College, Collins-Maxwell, Columbus, Council Bluffs, Creston, Dallas Center-Grimes, Davenport, Decorah, Des Moines Independent, Dubuque, East Central, East Union, Farragut, Forest City, Fredericksburg, Glenwood, GMG, Grinnell-Newburg, Hartley-Melvin-Sanborn, Hinton, HLV, IKM, Iowa City, Jefferson-Scranton, Linn-Mar, Manson Northwest Webster, Maquoketa, Marion Independent, Mason City, Meservey-Thornton, Midland, Mormon Trail, Morning Sun, Mount Vernon, Muscatine, Newell-Fonda, Nodaway Valley, North Scott, Ogden, Okoboji, Oskaloosa, Ottumwa, Pekin, Perry, Pomeroy-Palmer, Preston, Red oak, Saydel, Solon, Sumner, Tripoli, Twin Rivers, Urbandale, Ventura, Villisca, Washington, Wayne, West Branch, West Des Moines, West Sioux, Williamsburg.