Twenty years ago, students had to get approval from their parents if they wanted to hear Ed Murray, then a state legislator, speak at their school about being an openly gay politician.

“These kids would have had to get permission slips,” said Murray, now Seattle’s mayor, as he gestured toward the members of Garfield High School’s Gay-Straight Alliance. “We’ve made a lot of progress, but we still have challenges.”

The Seattle Police Department’s “Safe Place” program will help address those challenges, Murray said. Following its launch last year, “Safe Place” is now expanding to all 98 Seattle public schools, Murray announced Wednesday with Seattle police Chief Kathleen O’Toole and Seattle Public Schools Superintendent Larry Nyland.

“Safe Place” is a voluntary program where businesses and organizations designate themselves as LGBTQ allies and receive training on how to report hate crimes. Employees are also trained to harbor victims after they’ve called 911 while they wait for police officers to arrive.

In schools, the “Safe Place” campaign means that students who experience harassment can report it a staff member and then stay in one office or classroom until school officials have been alerted.

School security staff were trained last year, said Jim Ritter, the police department’s LGBTQ liaison officer. Ritter started the campaign after he was appointed the department’s first full-time liaison to Seattle’s LGBTQ community in September 2014.

People who haven’t been bullied or harassed don’t understand the trauma that that victims face, said Ritter, who noted that he didn’t feel comfortable coming out until he was in his 30s.

“It is difficult to overstate the importance of ‘Safe Place,’ ” said Julia Robaidek, 18, senior president of Garfield’s Gay-Straight Alliance.

The need for schools to provide safe spaces for LGBTQ students, who as a group experience higher rates of harassment and suicide than other students, is “quite literally life or death,” Robaidek said.

In addition to nearly 100 Seattle schools, the campaign has expanded to more than 1,600 locations throughout the city, and other areas have taken note of the program.

“We’re getting calls from all over the world,” O’Toole said.

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(c)2016 The Seattle Times

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