For many, school is a safe place for learning, life-long friendships, and pursuing personal dreams or goals. Perhaps most important of all those nostalgic memories of school are of former educators who have made lasting impressions, often far into one’s adulthood. For students who see school not as a place of opportunity but as a place of punishment, who face the constant threat of bullying behind classroom doors, these educators are making all the difference by working for inclusion and offering support.
In the eighth grade, Bart Palosz was sent to the emergency room for stiches after a bully bashed his head into a metal locker. His classmates said that faculty members called the incident an accident, but refused to share hall security footage, which captured the injury, to his own family.
The bullying continued well into his high school career, as classmates broke his belongings and assaulted him daily as he walked to school. Eventually, the torture became too much to bear.
One of his last social media posts stated, “I have chosen to go with 3 peoples advice and kill myself. I just wish it was faster [sic].”
And just last month, the 15-year-old from Connecticut committed suicide after his first day at Greenwich High School.
His friends believe that it was the continuous bullying of his classmates that ultimately led to his death. His older sister, Beata, claims that the school knew the ongoing trouble her brother had. In fact, their parents wrote letters to counselors and even had meetings with teachers and principals about the unrelenting bullying.
Beata told media outlets this saddening statement, “I honestly do not think the school addressed the bullying. It could have saved him if they did.”
Bullying: A Nationwide Epidemic
Victims of bullying, like Palosz, are often not recognized until it is too late. Bullying and discrimination remain a large part of the school systems across the nation, and Long Island is no exception, particularly when it comes to bullying against gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender youth, or students perceived to be among the GLBT community.
According to studies, GLBT students in suburban and rural areas are not only victimized more but also have less access to resources and support than youth in urban environments.
The studies note that 87% of all GLBT students in suburban to rural areas reported being verbally harassed while 45% reported being physically harassed and 22% reported being physically assaulted. 91% of these GLBT students hear “gay” used in a negative way while 79% of GLBT students frequently heard other homophobic remarks at school.
Even more startlingly, their study observed that only 13% of these GLBT students reported that school personnel intervened when they heard negative remarks relating to gender expression. Only 11% reported having a GLBT-inclusive curriculum.
The 120 miles of Long Island certainly run the gamut in the way of geographical diversity: parts of Nassau and Suffolk are bustling towns and suburban villages full of resources and support, while other sections towards the East End could easily be considered rural. Resources are thus few and far between.
One such resource, however, is Long Island Gay and Lesbian Youth (LIGALY), which celebrated its 20th anniversary this year for service, education, and advocacy for GLBT youth and allies. Robert Vitelli, who is the Chief Operating Officer today, began working for the organization in 2001 as a community educator.
“Our goals were broader – we were working to provide information to students about what it means to be GLBT. At that time, there was a real lack of knowledge as well as a lack of understanding.” Vitelli reflects, “Today our community education goals can be more focused. The general awareness of GLBT people and what it means to be GLBT has grown tremendously. LIGALY still delivers the same curriculum, but now we target building awareness of bullying and how students can help to stop it and prevent it, as GLBT youth are still bullied for being GLBT in their schools.”
However, a lack of reliable transportation for Long Island youth and the vast distance between homes, schools, and community centers have reinforced a feeling of isolation for these already vulnerable students. Additionally, the process towards addressing anti-GLBT bullying in the classroom has been a slow one: each school district has its own procedures or lack thereof, thus hindering protections across the board.
Educators at the Forefront
Dr. Linda Fazio, who had been a school psychologist in Syosset High School for over 20 years and is now a LIGALY Board member, agrees that there is still a wide range of differences on Long Island regarding how homosexuality is seen, and this greatly affects the administration’s policies and thus their students.
“Every school district is different, and everything starts from the top,” Dr. Fazio says. “If you have top administrators who are homophobic, then that’s going to get communicated down below them.”
For example, in other states, some school districts are still trying to pass laws so that counselors and administration have the right to disclose the orientation or gender identity of their students to administration and parents of the students, thus “outing” potentially vulnerable youth without their consent.
Just a few months ago, Tennessee tried passing the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, stating that new language needs to be reinstated – requiring school officials to inform parents if they suspect one of their students is gay and to not discuss sexual activity that is not “related to natural human reproduction.” Though the bill did not pass, the notion that a public “outing” in an institution a child ought to be considered safe in concerns educators and counselors alike.
Dr. Fazio says such laws are particularly harmful. In her career, she shares that many students often came out to her regarding their sexual orientation or gender identity, and that most times, she was their only confidant.
Aware of this, she says her primary goal was always building the child’s ego strength so that he or she could talk to at least one of his or her parents.
“It’s dangerous, actually, to get involved in that kind of thing because parents can have a myriad of reactions – and some of them can be quite negative,” Dr. Fazio says. “For instance, I worked with two Asian kids and there was no way they were ever going to tell their parents they were gay. And I understood.”
Laws like the “Don’t Say Gay” bill are unlikely to be seen in Long Island, and Dr. Fazio understands firsthand how important that is.
Similarly, Adam Fine, the current principal of East Hampton High School and an educator for over 18 years, ensures that his staff and administration treat all students with dignity. Like Dr. Fazio, he makes sure that students are given respect and help regardless of their identities, and believes that disclosing information about sexual orientation or gender identity to parents is not only unnecessary, but counterproductive to addressing bullying.
“Every issue that comes up is dealt with according to our code of conduct. We always seek to educate our students about language and bias language. The bottom line is that bullying is not accepted at our school,” Fine says.
Despite even the best efforts, however, bullying finds ways to continue in our schools. In East Hampton High School, junior David Hernandez Barros took his life a year ago after alleged bullying about his sexual orientation.
While Fine did not comment specifically on the tragic incident, he stresses that his school takes anti-GLBT slurs and behaviors very seriously.
“We investigate everything. Time is of the essence, so we put the appropriate resources where they need to be to determine if an issue has occurred,” Fine says. “Our high school is continuing to grow when faced with new situations […] we can always get better, and have adopted this mantra over the past few years.”
But intervening against bullying goes beyond the actions of counselors and principals. In order to prevent the tragic outcomes of students like Palosz and Barros, educators like Katherine Gutkes believe that both what is taught in the classroom is just as critical, if not more so, than how the administration reacts to anti-GLBT incidents.
Gutkes, having taught at both Roslyn Middle School and Roslyn High, is constantly aware that she is dealing with a particularly impressionable group of students. They are still capable of learning so much and learning to form their own thoughts and opinions critically, so she believes that encouraging them to think objectively about issues and argue a position will help grow them to be more open-minded, accepting adults – and curb bullying that she believes is largely the result of ignorance.
In fact, she notes that as an English teacher, it is not uncommon to discuss works of literature in the class that pertain to past issues of discrimination and civil rights. Texts such as To Kill a Mockingbird or A Doll’s House are quintessential middle and high school books that create a bridge, paralleling the racial and gender discrimination of the past with what students are being exposed to today with the GLBT movement.
“I’d have them look at current events where there is seclusion in our society and ask them what they think people today could learn from these past texts that teach us otherwise,” Gutkes remarks. “Having students see the discrimination sometimes shown towards those in the GLBT community today and how [society] mimics these mistakes of the past allows students to further understand why discrimination is wrong.”
Many think that bullying is an issue limited to younger grades, and while colleges and universities often embrace their diverse student body and offer support to GLBT young adults, prejudice can still linger on.
Laura Angyal, an adjunct professor at the Post campus of Long Island University, adopts a proactive climate in her classroom with inclusive values, covering a wide variety of topics related to different minority groups.
While some educators try to include the GLBT civil rights movement into their curriculum, Angyal opens her syllabus up even wider to cover a wide variety of gender and sexual minorities, always while setting ground rules in the classroom in order to protect her students and create an effective, safe learning environment. She has made it clear that homophobic comments by her students in the classroom are completely unacceptable, and she hopes that will carry into their actions outside her doors.
“Many of my students are consistently eager to discuss gender stereotypes and their own experiences with gender discrimination. It’s extremely important to me to create a classroom environment where my students are able to speak honestly and respectfully with one another,” Angyal notes.
As a college professor, Angyal has more freedom to change her curriculum to explore issues of sexual orientation and gender identity with her students. Just recently, Angyal had students read an article about Jenna Talackova, who was initially banned from competing in Canada’s Miss universe pageant because she is a trans woman. Angyal then asked her students to argue whether or not they thought that Talackova should be able to compete.
“Young people today need learning experiences like this. Sometimes people have difficulty grasping ideas that seem foreign or unusual to them,” Angyal remarks. “The goal is to teach students how to be open-minded in these situations and learn from them instead of immediately being judgmental.”
Angyal believes that progress has been made with a student when he or she is able and willing to argue the importance of equal rights regarding sexual orientation and gender identity – regardless of whether that student can personally relate or not.
However, simply relating to the experiences of GLBT classmates is not enough. Bruce Castellano, LIGALY Board Vice President and a current college professor who has also had experience teaching high school courses, believes that educators must inspire students to become empowered, as that is the key to true change. Castellano began his advocacy work with students in 1971 in Mineola High School. His 34 year stay at the school proved to be impactful as he founded and ran an anti-bullying program in 1989 called Increase the Peace, which has since grown into a human rights program in schools across the metropolitan area.
“I saw the whole spectrum of bullying. The GLBT community was an invisible minority for a very long time. The bullying we encountered was more racial or regarding body image,” Castellano recalls. “People of color came into the district, and that’s where the bullying started around the 90s.”
Mineola still remains a blue collar, middle class district, and Castellano says that he is happy to see bullying beginning to end due to Increase the Peace. He shares that it first started as a Safe Schools Program, and he went to training sessions from the Human Rights Commission and the Nassau County Police Department and taught students what he learned from his sessions – then he began to attend Parent Teacher Association meetings and school board meetings in order to raise awareness about how the GLBT community was the most vulnerable at the time.
“Increase the Peace was a name created by students. After talking to them, they said that most of the bullying happens behind the back of educators and administrators.” Castellano says, “My strong feeling is you’ve got to work with students. The job of the educator when it comes to bullying is to train and teach the entire population, which is mostly straight, to deal with being an upstander and intervening.”
Now an adjunct professor at Adelphi University, Castellano’s program branched from an elective to part of the school of education and the department of sociology. Castellano, who is also the field coordinator for the Peace Studies and Human Rights minor program, is still driven to educate and empower his students.
“My goal as a human rights educator is to educate and empower so that students come away from a learning experience or program with not only the knowledge but also the tools to make a difference and a change,” Castellano shares.
Looking to the Future
Long Island is moving in the right direction in fostering affirming environments for its students, but there is still much to do. For example, there are close to 100 middle and high schools with active gay-straight alliance (GSA) clubs – an impressive feat considering the often conservative climate of the region. However, that figure also means that only 40% of Long Island’s schools have such a GSA.
Bullying will not end because teachers incorporate GLBT-themed works in their curriculum or because principals wear a rainbow ribbon. No one action will change the climate of schools across Long Island.
But steps like these will make all the difference in the lives of those being bullied, and send a clear message to all students about the importance of inclusion and open-mindedness.
Most all educators share the same sentiments as Gutkes, who remarks that it is helping and guiding students through the difficult worlds and intersections of adolescence and literature that she finds most gratifying about teaching.
“When the day is over, and my students move on in their education, my only wish is that they may look back and remember what I had taught them and feel that they really learned something useful in my class,” Gutkes says.
Educators are leading the charge by changing classrooms to include GLBT history and themes in a micro level, and administrators are working to ensure those ideas translate into the larger school environment – jobs with life-changing consequences that do not end when the doors close at 5 p.m., but continue long after graduation.