School starts September 5 in New York City for 1.1 million students in 1,800 schools with a new chancellor, Richard Carranza, who has served in San Francisco and Houston and who wrote in June about his support for his gay twin brother, Reuben, and explained “Why It’s So Important to Include LGBTQ Education in Schools.” The new school year will be a test to see whether that promise and the school system’s commitment to seriously change school culture to stop bullying and integrate LGBTQ issues into curricula will make a meaningful difference.
“My job is to ensure that in every school, in every classroom, our beautifully diverse student population is reflected, represented, and nurtured,” Carranza wrote in Teen Vogue. “My job is also to provide teachers and school staff with the resources they need to teach more inclusive lessons, and the tools to facilitate thoughtful and engaging conversations about race, sexuality, gender, and other relevant topics.”
The city Department of Education (DOE) ramped up its procedures for taking and dealing with reports of school bullying last year in the wake of bullied Bronx student Abel Cedeno killing a classmate and wounding another a year ago in what his defense lawyers say was self-defense. Led by out gay Queens City Councilmember Daniel Dromm, a six-hour hearing was held in October by the Education Committee where then-Chancellor Carmen Fariña was put on the defensive, but announced $8 million in new initiatives to address bullying.
Dromm said the DOE appropriated $1 million for GSA’s — school clubs once called gay-straight alliances and now termed gender sexuality alliances — and diversity clubs.
“The Council also doubled the funding for a program called History UnErased to integrate LGBT history lessons from $100,000 to $200,000 and gave another $100,000 to the LGBT Network to get into the schools and do staff training on LGBT issues,” he said. “The DOE had a training day for 900 students and teachers on LGBT issues. These are all steps in the right direction, but still a drop in the bucket in a city with a $25 billion [school] budget.”
Dromm said, “Every school should have a GSA and every principal who doesn’t have one in their school should be questioned why.”
Current policy is to mandate a GSA if it is requested by a student in any school, but estimates are that less than 15 percent of city schools have them. The DOE is required to report on the actual percentage in October.
At an “Anti-Bullying Town Hall: LGBTQ+ Youth in Our Schools” sponsored by the group FIERCE, a community organization led by LGBTQ young people of color, at Judson Church on August 25, students, advocates, and parents tried to come to grips with why bullying is so pervasive and how to curb it.
Mustafa Sullivan, FIERCE’s director, said, “Our culture is violent. It was created through violence, and adults don’t want to deal with that. The question is how do we address this violence in a humane way?”
“Staff and adults in general need the ability to look at students as people and be trained in dealing with the trauma that so many of these students are living with,” said Abena Bello, a client advocate at the Ali Forney Center for homeless LGBTQ youth. “What happened to this person [who bullies] for them to act this way? What’s happening at home? Is there abuse at home?”
Latifah Blades of FIERCE cited the crisis in school safety.
“There are officers what beat up kids and drag them through the hallway,” she said.
Jason Morales, also of FIERCE, said that metal detectors are necessary due to gang violence in schools.
Desmond, an 11-year old “drag kid” and founder of a house called Haus of Amazing (Desmondisamazing.com) who performed at the forum, said, “I want to show the world that kids can do drag and kids should always be themselves.”
Jared Fox, the LGBTQ Liaison for the DOE, went over all the policies and procedures the schools have established to deal with bullying.
“If you are bullied you can tell any teacher and the teacher has 24 hours to let the principal or Respect for All liaison put it in the online registry,” Fox said.
He added that students or parents can also go directly to the 311 system to report incidents. He said students are entitled to a copy of the complaint reports.
“The principal has five days to conduct an investigation,” Fox said. “And your parents do not have to be notified.”
He praised the new chancellor for his commitment to dealing with LGBTQ and bullying issues and to the new structures being set up within the department.
Fox talked about a brochure he developed explaining how to address bullying, but acknowledged there was no plan to get it into the hands of every single student in the school system.
Bree, a FIERCE organizer, who had harrowing experiences in school for being gender non-conforming, said she was not made aware of her recourses when she was in high school.
Fox said that if any transgender student is not being allowed to use the restroom corresponding to their gender identity, “Let me know and I will call the principal.” His email is email@example.com.
This week, Miranda Barbot, a spokesperson for the DOE, said, “We understand the impacts bullying can have on students’ social and emotional well-being as well as their academic success, which is why we have invested significant resources to better serve students and families. We work to make resources available and well-known to all students and families, and at the start of every school year, schools are required to distribute Respect for All information to all students. Additionally, staff members are trained annually on reporting protocols, and will be trained on culturally responsive education in the coming years.”
A Bullying Complaint Portal is being launched soon and a Bullying Complaint Coordinator has been hired to administer it. In addition to the contact information Fox provided, Barbot said that students and parents can report bullying via email at RespectforAll@schools.nyc.gov. Students who request a transfer due to bullying “will receive a transfer offer,” something that was not offered to Cedeno despite his family’s years of complaints about being bullied. A transfer might have averted the incident at his Bronx school last year that left Matthew McCree dead and Adrian Laboy injured.
The city, Barbot noted, is providing $23 million to train all staff over the next two years in “anti-bias and culturally responsive education.” Three hundred schools are being targeted with funds to enhance school environments through “social-emotional supports,” training staff and students “on self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making.”
Despite all these procedures the DOE points to, Skye O’neal Adrian, a youth organizer with FIERCE, told the town hall, “The process from reporting an incident to when it gets to DOE remains unclear. Even though Jared says it is a seamless process, it doesn’t look that way right now. Young people just aren’t aware of the reporting system.”
FIERCE, he said, is planning more town halls in the other boroughs. Details will be posted on the group’s Facebook page.
With kids coming out at younger and younger ages, most school environments around the country are not prepared. Just this week, a nine-year-old boy who came out as gay at his Denver elementary school was subjected to kids telling him to kill himself. And he did.
“It’s not enough to tell students that they will be accepted for who they are,” Chancellor Carranza wrote in Teen Vogue. “We must show them, in the literature we read, in the language we use, and in the way we invest our resources, that we are a deeply connected society made up of different voices and perspectives that all deserve to be seen, heard, and respected.”
Editor’s Note: The original posting of this story incorrectely stated that the City Council appropriated $1 million for GSA’s. In fact, that money came from the city Department of Education.