Finally, Sakia’s Moment of Silence

Newark schools superintendent orders schools to observe first anniversary of lesbian’s murder.

The superintendent of public schools in Newark, New Jersey has declared May 11, 2004, “No Name Calling Day,” a measure meant to reinforce school officials’ concerns with the harassment faced by gay and lesbian youth and other minority groups.

The date was set to coincide with the first anniversary of the death of Sakia Gunn, a 15-year-old lesbian who was killed early on the morning of May 11, 2003 as she and friends returned home to Newark after socializing in Greenwich Village.

Bolden acknowledged that Gunn’s death and the outpouring of grief that followed, including a funeral attended by nearly 3,000 young people, many of whom were lesbian high school students who walked out of their schools on the morning of May 16 to attend the service, educated her about the need for action.

The presence of such a large number of youth who self-identified as gay and lesbian galvanized Newark’s adult gay community to found the Newark Pride Alliance (NPA) and lobby city officials for a youth center.

Bolden said that Laquetta Nelson, chairwoman of NPA, was instrumental in educating her about the needs of gay and lesbian youth.

“The whole issue with Sakia Gunn made us all much more aware of the large presence of gay and lesbian youth in our schools,” said Bolden.

Last year, after her murder, despite the requests of students and parents, Fernand West, Sakia’s principal at West Side High School, refused to have a moment of silence and was reported by several lesbian students to have said, “If you live a certain lifestyle, you pay a certain price.”

Bolden declined to comment on whether or not West opposed the notion of “No Name Calling Day,” saying instead that her decision was based on “the issue of sensitivity to her student’s needs.” Bolden added that Nelson inspired the idea for “No Name Calling Day,” an event not only meant to underscore acceptance of gay and lesbian students and staff but also foster tolerance among rival ethnic groups and gang members.

“For example, the issue of gay children wearing their colors, their beads and necklaces,” said Bolden, referring to the homemade adornments that are gay pride symbols, “staff need to be trained that they are not gang colors.”

Officials in neither the Essex County prosecutor’s office nor the state attorney general’s office were able to provide the exact number of juveniles murdered in Newark in the past year. Bolden estimated that between kindergarten and grade twelve, 34 Newark public school students died in the past year.

In an April 8, 2004 letter to Nelson, Bolden wrote: “The Newark Public Schools’ primary concern is a safe, drug free, caring and nurturing school environment for all of our students. We share your beliefs that dignity and respect are important for all students and staff.”

Nelson had spoken to Bolden earlier this year at a social function at which the two women were introduced by Amina Baraka, a civil rights activist and member of NPA, whose lesbian daughter, Shani Baraka, a Newark middle school teacher, was murdered last August along with her lover, Rayshon Holmes. No one has been charged in that crime, but authorities are holding James Coleman, Shani’s former brother-in-law, on unrelated charges. Baraka family members have always considered Coleman to be a suspect. In a tragic coincidence in Newark’s gay and lesbian community, Shani Baraka once coached Sakia Gunn, a star basketball player.

After their conversation, Nelson sent Bolden a letter, asking that the superintendent consider May 11, 2004 as a day of “No Name Calling.” “It is important that Sakia’s name be mentioned in all of the discussions so that the LGBTIQ students feel that they are included in these activities,” wrote Nelson, using the acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, intersex and questioning.

In an April 28 interview, Nelson said that she appreciated Bolden’s positive response to her request, especially in light of the intransigence city officials, including Mayor Sharpe James, have shown in meeting with NPA members in order to establish an outreach center for gay and lesbian youth.

“This is a major thing,” said Nelson. “I will never forget those kids outside the funeral parlor last year. Each one I held I told, ‘Don’t worry—we’re going to make this right for you. This is not going to happen in this city again.’”

Nelson added that efforts were underway to gain private funding for a youth center, especially to address the large number of gay and lesbian homeless children on Newark’s streets. “I am not going to stop,” said Nelson, “until we have built a community center for these kids.” Nelson added, “I want this city to have a beacon of peace, a sanctuary, for anyone who is different, anybody who’s been thrown out of the house by their families. Those kids who are out on the street because they are gay, and Newark has too many of them, we are going to take them in and get them in school and help them be who they are meant to be.”

Bolden said that principals in each of Newark’s 75 schools, including its 12 high schools, will conduct a recitation of the names of deceased students. Bolden added that she has mandated all guidance counselors and social workers to attend training courses aimed at assisting gay and lesbian youth. Principals have also been encouraged to urge teachers to create lesson plans that educate youth about accepting their gay and lesbian peers. “It’s the beginning of a conversation that is ongoing,” said Bolden.

On the evening of May 11 at 7:30 p.m. at the corner of Broad and Market Streets, the intersection at which Sakia was stabbed to death, there will be a candlelight vigil and memorial service. Any gay or lesbian youth interested in reading poetry or prose dedicated to Sakia’s memory should contact the Newark Pride Alliance at 973-242-1412.

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