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LA Schools Co-Sponsor Anti-Bullying Conference

by Megan Barnes
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Thursday May 5, 2011

Dozens of families and educators will converge at the Thomas Starr King Middle School in Los Angeles on Saturday, May 7, for an unprecedented conference devoted to combating homophobia and anti-LGBT discrimination in schools.

Months after a string of LGBT teen suicides made national headlines; the LA Gay and Lesbian Center's free, day-long "Building Together/[email protected]"; conference is designed to teach educators and families how to fight homophobia inside and outside the classroom.

"It can be as simple as taking a look at your classroom or the halls in your school and seeing what kind of posters are hanging," said Amanda Litwin, program supervisor of the Center's Family Services branch. "Putting up a hate-free zone poster or having a rainbow sticker or a gay-straight alliance sticker on your desk, these types of visual cues without having to say anything, make it so that students that identify as LGBT, or have parents that identify as LGBT, know that you're a safe person, you're an ally."

A resource fair will connect families with the California Men's Gathering, Gender Justice LA, the GSA Network, the Los Angeles Unified School District's Project 10 and other organization. The conference will also screen "Out for the Long Run," a documentary about openly gay high school athletes. Director Scott Bloom will also hold a question and answer session.

If students know they can bring problems to their teachers from these subtle cues, Litwin said it can help prevent them from bottling up feelings of isolation. Anti-LGBT bullying on campus and on the Internet will be discussed.

Panelists will also advise LGBT parents about how to approach school administrations about their inclusion, from getting involved in parent-teacher associations to changing "mother/father" on school forms to "parent/guardian."

"I've received calls from parents whose children were asked not to talk about their families in class," said Litwin. "We can meet face to face with administrators about why this is inappropriate, why California education codes are in place to protect students so that they can talk about their families in the classroom and they shouldn't have to feel ashamed."

State Assemblymember Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) introduced a bill in March that would require every school district in California to implement anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies and programs that include actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity and expression. Seth's Law is named after a 13-year-old gay Tehachapi student-Seth Walsh-who took his own life last September after he suffered from years of anti-gay harassment about which his teachers did nothing. The measure would also require school districts to ensure administrations take all harassment reports seriously and address them quickly.

Seth's Law would also require school districts to provide professional development to teachers, counselors and administrators on how to identify and stop harassment and discrimination and create a safe learning environment for all students.

The state Assembly's Education Committee passed Seth's Law by a 7-3 vote last month, but conference organizers stressed there are non-legislative ways to address classroom bullying. These include parents of grade school students giving their children cartoons and library books featuring same-sex parented families.

"These are children's books that might have a really wonderful fantastical story about a kid and a dragon who go on adventures together and the kid just happens to have two moms," said Litwin. "It's not that sexuality has to be explained, which is a common misconception, it just highlights in a very subtle way that there are all different types of families."

Teachers who attend the conference will also learn LGBT terminology. Litwin said this insight will allow them to start inclusive discussions in the classrooms.

"We're lucky in the state of California that the education codes are very explicit in stating that its educators and administrators rights and duty to protect all students," Litwin said. "The implementation just isn't happening and I think that goes back to a lack of resources."

While private schools tend to have more money to invest in this kind of education, Litwin said public schools are beginning to catch on and take greater interest. The Los Angeles Unified School District has co-sponsored the conference with the Center.

The conference is the first of its kind in Southern California, but Litwin said campaigns are in the works to further advocate for the implementation of LGBT-inclusive programs and curricula across the state.

"I really hope that we work to foster a community between these different demographics so that they're all relying on each other and working together to create the safe school environment that we all know we need and want," she said. "More education needs to happen so that we don't have to see these constant headlines about yet another youth that has taken his or her life based on homophobia and harassment at school, a place that should be safe for all students."

Megan Barnes is a freelance journalist in Los Angeles. She regularly contributes to EDGE, San Pedro Today and was a founding editor of alternative UCSB newspaper The Bottom Line. More of her work can be found at www.megbarnes.com


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