Nearly 150 educators from across Long Island gathered in the Jericho school district Friday to learn how to foster more LGBT-friendly campuses for students.
Advocates at a daylong forum told teachers, guidance counselors and social workers how districts can create supportive policies for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students, foster student groups such as Gay Student Alliances, and make sure trained and supportive adults are on staff.
"It is hugely important that every single child in the Jericho schools and in the schools throughout Long Island is welcome in school, is safe while they are there and has an equal opportunity to succeed," said keynote speaker Eliza Byard of the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, a New York City-based group that focuses on LGBT awareness and education in kindergarten through 12th grade.
"I know that progress is uneven, and a lot of times it comes down to leadership at the school level," said Byard, the network's executive director.
Nationally, LGBT students often face barriers and discrimination, with harassment and assault more prevalent at the middle-school level, she said.
The third annual LGBT forum was organized and hosted by educators in the Jericho district, along with LGBTeach and the Nassau County Anti-Bias Consortium. The event included panels that addressed gender diversity, districts' legal responsibilities and guidance on how to start and maintain Gay Student Alliances on campus.
It included a workshop to provide a better understanding of the unique experiences that LGBT youth face in school.
"We need to be able to talk about this without worrying about talking about it," said Jericho Middle School teacher Elisa Waters, an organizer of the annual forums. "And the more we have these conversations, it really normalizes this dialogue."
The state's Dignity for All Students Act creates the expectation that schools are safe places for kids, Waters said. The 2012 law requires that students have a safe and supportive environment free from discrimination, intimidation, taunting, harassment and bullying on school property, on school buses and at school functions.
Bob Regan, a community educator with Pride for Youth, a Bellmore-based group that advocates for LGBT kids, said students tell him anti-bullying rules sometimes are not enforced in schools.
He said, "I think having educators be aware of their struggles is very, very important."
Kathleen Dunne, a guidance counselor at Oceanside Middle School, said she was looking for information to form a Gay Student Alliance at her school.
Jericho ninth-grade student Tamar Bernstein, 14, said belonging to her school's group has been a help.
"The support that people get helps them as an individual and helps them as a whole person," she said.