December 1 — 2:09 pm, 2003

LGBT groups push District on school safety, support

Community and advocacy groups dedicated to fighting homophobia in schools have been steadily working with the School District of Philadelphia to make schools safer for students and staff of all sexual orientations throughout the last decade.

But priorities were elsewhere during the widespread upheaval in Philadelphia’s schools in the wake of the state assuming control of the School District two years ago. Now some groups representing lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) communities in Philadelphia are telling the District there is a need to reaffirm and expand upon its commitment to LGBT issues.

The District will soon issue a directive to "make it really clear that schools have to be safe places for all students" across the District, said Diane Castelbuono, senior policy advisor to District CEO Paul Vallas.

"It’s really nothing new; it’s just a restatement of our commitment," she said.

Mayor John Street’s Commission on LGBT Concerns, which has been working to address safety for sexual minorities in schools, made the initial move this fall to get the District on record with a commitment to enforcing its existing policy.

Castelbuono emphasized that what is needed is enforcement of Policy 102-the District’s statement in support of justice and equity for people of "all races, ethnic groups, social classes, genders, religions, disabilities, and sexual orientations" in school communities districtwide.

Enacted in January 1994, the landmark policy was the result of a collaborative effort among the District’s Multicultural Education Working Group and several local community organizations.

Groups put forth agenda
Members of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG)-a volunteer-run advocacy organization that has at least 100 members locally-began meeting last summer with District officials, including CEO Vallas, about how the District can help make schools safer for LGBT students.

Carol Greenauer, vice president of Philadelphia PFLAG, said she would like to see a gay-straight alliance established in every high school where students express the need for one.

"If students want to form a gay-straight alliance club, we support their right to do that," CEO Vallas said in an interview after a School Reform Commission meeting in December.

Currently gay-straight alliances are active in eight District high schools, and at least four more are in the process of becoming active this school year.

"We hope that every high school gets the opportunity to know that this is a possibility," said Greenauer, whose organization presented a workshop called "That’s so gay" about dealing with homophobia in schools at the District’s first annual Student Anti-violence Conference this fall.

Representatives of the local chapter of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN)-an education group committed to creating safe schools for all LGBT people-have also made several suggestions to CEO Vallas about how to better ensure the safety of students and staff.

These include creating a detailed cabinet plan on how to better implement Policy 102, devoting a Friday teacher professional development session on LGBT studies curriculum development, and making resource materials on how to deal with homophobia and promote safety available in every school.

Vallas has responded by promising a systemwide Friday professional development session in the spring on LGBT issues and has tapped the Office of Educational Equity to coordinate the effort to address the concerns being raised by LGBT groups and their allies.

Enforcement needed, advocates say
But enforcing the policies that were designed to ensure fair treatment of LGBT people in schools continues to be inadequate, according to many LGBT advocates.

GLSEN co-chair Ron Paulus said that while he is pleased the District is speaking out about LGBT issues, he still thinks the District could do more.

"I don’t see a real system in place to ensure that the policies are being enforced," said Paulus, adding that he would like to see the District to hire someone who is charged with this responsibility districtwide.

But according to Castelbuono, the responsibility of making schools safe for all students lies with the principal of an individual school, and effective training is key to preparing principals to effectively address this at the school level.

Mandatory regional trainings for principals on making schools safe for LGBT students are scheduled to take place this spring.

Ultimately, effectively enforcing Policy 102 requires individuals on the school, regional, and districtwide levels working together, said Danny Horn, who has trained District staff on how to respond to anti-gay harassment and other LGBT issues for several years.

"There should be a number of people throughout the district whose responsibility it is to make [sure policies are enforced]," said Horn, who is education director of the Mazzoni Center, a local LGBT health advocacy group formerly known as Philadelphia Community Health Alternatives.

Horn was invited in November to meet with District officials for the first time since Vallas assumed the CEO post about how to continue and expand prior efforts such as the Ally Safe Schools Network, the districtwide LGBT student support group that began in 1998.

The network has been less active since the coordinating role provided by the District’s central office ended in 2001 after staff cuts in a reorganization.

The program initially came out of collaboration among the District, GLSEN, and the Mazzoni Center.

Holding an annual "All Means All" conference, providing trainings and professional development for principals and teachers, and requiring schools to display "No hatin’ " posters in classrooms, were some of the other prior efforts taken by past District leaders to make schools safe for people of all sexual orientations.

Former associate superintendent Katherine Conner, who chaired the District’s Safer Schools Advisory Group for Sexual Minority Youth in the late 1990s, sees current efforts as the continuation of a process that has been steadily expanding over the last decade.

"Vallas is making a good faith effort to move further forward," she said.

Now that the Vallas administration has expressed that it will heighten its efforts to address LGBT school safety issues, GLSEN co-chair Barbara Dowdall said the LGBT community and their allies must hold the District accountable.

"[Vallas] is not going to do something unless he’s pressured," she maintained.

To get involved, contact Philadelphia PFLAG(www.pflagphila.org) at 215-572-1833 or pflagphila@yahoo.com, Philadelphia GLSEN (www.glsen.org) at 215-552-8858 or GLSENPhiladelphia@yahoo.com, and Ally Safe Schools Program c/o Mazzoni Center (www.mazzonicenter.org) at 215-563-0652 x 219.

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