Maureen is featured in this article published by NorthJersey.com on October 24, 2013, BY KATHERINE MILSOP.
October commemorates Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender (GLBT) history month, and for public schools throughout New Jersey, it does not go by unnoticed.
But even with faculty-led initiatives like the “Week of Respect” and “Unity Day”, which seek to end harassment and bullying, students are finding their own ways to make schools safer, more tolerant places through groups such as the Gay Straight Alliance (GSA).
According to research from the National Society on Mental Illness published in 2007, a nation-wide study conducted by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) found that “22 percent of LGBT students reported that they did not feel safe at school.” Additionally, “90 percent of those students reported being harassed or assaulted during the past year (compared to 62 percent of non-LGBT teens).”
New Jersey has some of the strictest harassment, intimidation and bullying (HIB) laws in the country, including an “Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights” that was implemented in 2010.
HIB laws, enforced statewide by school boards, specifies against any offensive action or communication motivated by race, religion, color, ancestry, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression or a mental, physical or sensory disability.
“We’re constantly looking at our bullying policy,” said David Warner, principal of Elmwood Park Memorial High School. “We have school safety teams. If issues come up they’re addressed.” Warner noted that the HIB policies and student handbook are accessible to parents and students on the district’s website.
Mental health experts report that teens who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender are more at risk for depression and suicide, as they face increased social stigma and prejudice from their peers.
“Adolescence is a hard enough time for many in the best of circumstances,” said Maureen Price Tillman, LCSW, a psychotherapist who practices in Maplewood and Morristown.
Tillman created College with Confidence as a psychotherapy/education/consulting service to help prevent suicide in teens and young adults.
“LGBT teens are at much greater risk for depression, anxiety and suicide,” Tillman said. “Student-run support groups at high schools can help mitigate the isolation, shame, confusion, stress and fear that many feel.”
Several schools throughout Bergen County currently have active GSA chapters, including,Fort Lee High School, Hasbrouck Heights High School and Westwood High School.
While Elmwood Park currently does not have any groups like the GSA, Warner thinks “it can be done for sure.”
“I think that’s something that is kind of student-driven and community driven,” he said, adding that Montclair High School where he worked at previously had a GSA. “It just hasn’t happened here yet.”
Wallington Jr./Sr. High School Principal James Albro said that although the school does not have a GSA specifically, a new student group called the “Panther Pride Leaders” talks to their peers about anti-harassment as part of a transition program for incoming high school students.
“We found that it’s a very stressful transition from the grammar school,” he said.
“It’s in the theme of tolerance,” added Albro.
He referenced the “Week of Respect”, which the district celebrated earlier this month. He said that themes were incorporated into lessons that were “not just for GLBT, but multicultural.”
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Warner said that Elmwood Park recently adopted a complete anti-bullying curriculum that addresses various topics across all disciples.
“History, in particular, comes to mind because of civil rights,” said Warner.
The extent to which teachers are able to teach tolerance to their students, however, is no longer a choice made by the instructor.
“They’re required to teach it,” said Albro, who added that QSAC (Quality Single Accountability Continuum) wants to see evidence of multicultural lesson plans during the annual district evaluation.
“I started here in 1999, and we were doing it then,” he said.
But student groups like the GSA offer additional support and validation to GLBT students that may not otherwise come from administration-led initiatives. The high school GSA chapters are part of a national organization that seeks to empower gay youth and straight allies.
“These support and activist groups help students find their comfort zone and acceptance at high school which is what all teens look for,” Tillman said. “No doubt, working with the entire high school community to support these students is extremely important as well.”
Eileen Nagel, an English and journalism teacher at Westwood High School and advisor to the student GSA, said that the group is one of the aspects that attracted her to the school.
The GSA has been at Westwood for more than eight years, she said, and has grown since she first became the advisor.
“Meetings are anywhere from 25 to 40 students,” she said. “Groups of students and teachers were interested in having it [the club]. There was not a lot of resistance to it.”
“I would guess that public opinion has shifted, especially since that time,” Nagel said. “These kids really don’t see it as a big deal. The stigma has really changed.”
Nagel said that the GSA’s main goal is to promote safety for all students, and to ensure that everyone can have a safe and comfortable learning environment.
The GSA also does volunteer work and fundraising during the holidays. Students volunteer at shelters for homeless LGBT youth in New York City, such as the Ali Forney Center.
Nagel said that students meet kids their own age at the shelters, and learn about “a very different experience only a few miles away.”
Nagel said that the club has had a positive impact on the students, who recently celebrated National Coming Out Day on Oct. 11 and Ally Week. Students also show their support this month by wearing rainbow ribbons and the color purple. She said that the combination of initiatives makes a difference.
“They’re both really important. But I do think that when students are being told by other students that these are acceptable ways to act, that has a big impact on them,” she said. “We’re lucky in the fact that we have teachers and administrators that really reinforce that idea.”
“It’s powerful for a group of students to say, ‘This is not what we do,’” Nagel said.