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Local summit to address teen bullying

by Matthew S. Bajko
Sunday Apr 17, 2011
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As the issue of teen bullying continues to capture the nation’s attention, local Bay Area teens are planning a daylong summit to address how students, teachers and parents can help solve the problem.

The conference is being hosted next weekend by the Aragon High School Gay Straight Alliance in San Mateo. The student group’s president, Jason Galisatus, was inspired to organize the summit after attending the GLSEN Respect Awards in Los Angeles last year.

There he met Minnesota resident Tammy Aaberg, whose son Justin died by suicide last July after being bullied because he was gay. Aaberg has since become a vocal advocate for passage of laws strengthening anti-discrimination protections for LGBT youth.

"Her story was incredibly inspiring and I felt like I needed to do something about it," said Galisatus, 17, who is a senior. "I wanted to get the local GSAs together and then it expanded to bring all of the Bay Area together to fight bullying in our schools."

Even in the liberal Bay Area anti-gay bullying on school campuses is an issue, said Galisatus. While he was only bullied once during his sophomore year, when five other students surrounded him and yelled, "faggot," Galisatus said he deals with reports of similar incidents happening to his fellow classmates every few months.

"It is not perfect and there is a lot of room for improvement. There is still a lot of bullying that still happens," he said. "Improvement needs to happen at the student level. They need to understand saying ’That’s so gay’ isn’t acceptable.

"Teachers need to understand when they hear ’That’s so gay’ or ’faggot’ they need to intervene immediately. That is the goal of the summit," he added.

According to the 2009 National School Climate Survey, based on the responses of 7,000 LGBT middle and high school students over a 10-year period, eight in 10 had been verbally harassed at school while four in ten had been physically harassed. The data also showed that six in ten felt unsafe at school and that one in five had been the victim of a physical assault at school.

Matthew Thompson, 17, the GSA president at Burlingame High School, said most of the time anti-gay bullying has nothing to do with a students’ sexual orientation but occurs because they do not conform to traditional notions of gender identity.

"The primary issue with the bullying is not necessarily about people coming out. A lot of it is people still have issues, including in more liberal areas, with people who are gender non-conforming. That goes beyond sexuality in general," said Thompson, who is on the planning committee for the local youth summit. "From an early age people get teased about that all the time and parents are worrying about that."

The summit, which takes place Saturday, April 23, mirrors the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network’s annual Safe Schools Advocacy Summit. The third one took place in March and, along with guest speakers, featured education on federal legislation aimed at protecting LGBT youth. One bill, the Safe Schools Improvement Act, would require schools to implement comprehensive anti-bullying policies that include enumerated characteristics of students most often targeted, such as race, religion, sexual orientation and gender identity.

Last month the Gay-Straight Alliance Network and Community Link, an LGBT nonprofit, hosted a one-day conference in Fresno that addressed student safety and bullying in Central Valley schools.

The gatherings are important, note researchers, because the problem of bullying, whether of LGBT or straight students, cannot be eradicated merely by the passage of laws or adoption of more stringent regulations.

"Attitudes cannot be legislated away, and it takes a school and a community, working together, to change them and to change the culture in the school. But there is hope on the horizon and there are positive steps being taken to address this issue," write Derry L. Stufft, of the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, and Colleen M. Graff, with the University of Scranton, in their article "Increasing Visibility for LGBTQ Students: What Schools Can Do To Create Inclusive Classroom Communities," published this year in the journal Current Issues in Education.

The authors note that while schools are increasingly cognizant of the fact their campus populations are diverse and there is a need for "bully-free zones," many do not take "the time to address the subtle bullying of LGBTQ students and faculty."

"These students and faculty remain invisible, and their voices remain silent. Schools still need to address this issue, but given the stigma of homosexuality and the potential for controversy, many teachers and school officials may not know where to begin," write Stufft and Graff. "Homophobia is still largely ignored as a bias. The question is: ’How do educators begin to change antiquated attitudes?’"

Organizers of the Bay Area summit hope it can provide some answers. The gathering will feature guest speakers and breakout sessions on various topics, from coming out to faith-based concerns.

Those expected to address the up to 500 attendees include local gay celebrity pastry chef Yigit Pura; Los Angeles-based drag queen Delta Work from the reality show RuPaul’s Drag Race; Santa Rosa teenager Kayla Kearny, who came out to her classmates at Maria Carrillo High School during a speech honoring Martin Luther King Jr. in January; and AIDS and gay rights activist Cleve Jones.

Several local politicians are also slated as speakers, including state Senator Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) and out politicians San Francisco Supervisor David Campos and former Supervisor Bevan Dufty.

In addition to Aaberg, who is expected to be at the gathering, another advocate for LGBT youth who has gained national attention will be speaking that day: Michigan teenager Graeme Taylor. The 14-year-old publicly came out during a local school board meeting last fall in support of a teacher who was suspended for a day without pay after he conducted a classroom talk about gay symbols.

A video of Graeme’s comments went viral, resulting in his being invited on to the Ellen DeGeneres Show and to the recent White House conference on school bullying. While he himself has not been taunted over his sexual orientation, Graeme said he does have some ideas on how to address the problem.

"To be honest, I don’t really know why it is the case. I was fortunate enough that people realize they gain more by supporting me than by tearing me down," said Graeme in a phone interview this month. "I believe everyone should be concerned about bullying on its own because it can lead to worse things."

His father, Kirk Taylor, will be joining him on the trip out west. A teacher himself, Taylor is currently trying to address the bullying of one his own students, who has been targeted due to his unique personality.

"He is offbeat and gets teased and pushed in the hallways. His parents are working so hard to try to help him. It is so complex and not easy; that is why we are glad so many people right now are coming together collectively to make this a major issue, as it should be," said Taylor. "To me this has to become almost tiresome, the attack on bullying. It has to become second nature to kids in school and families in schools the fact it is going to be addressed."

Galisatus hopes not just LGBT teens but their straight classmates, teachers, parents and concerned adults will take part in the summit.

"It is not only for people who have been bullied but for teens who have seen people bullied and don’t know how to address it," he said. "A lot of people say they hear ’That is so gay’ on a daily basis but don’t know how to effectively make someone understand why that is offensive."

The summit is estimated to cost $2,000, and so far, the organizers have raised $1,400 plus donated air miles to cover the travel costs of speakers.

It will take place from noon to 8 p.m. Saturday, April 23 at Aragon High School, 900 Alameda de las Pulgas in San Mateo. A dinner and a youth-only dance will immediately follow until 10 p.m.

The summit and dinner are open to the public; there is a $10 suggested donation to attend.

For more information or to make a donation, visit http://www.bayareayouthsummit.org.

Copyright Bay Area Reporter. For more articles from San Francisco's largest GLBT newspaper, visit www.ebar.com

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