Schools aim to support GLBT students

Walt Whitman High School students and faculty will celebrate the 10th year of National Coming Out Day, an awareness campaign, on Oct. 11. The campaign draws attention to bullying problems and tries to make schools safer for GLBT students. Videojournalist: Jessica Rotkiewicz (Oct. 3, 2012)

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More than 50 schools and eight synagogues across Long Island have signed up to participate in a safe school awareness campaign Thursday for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth, organizers said.

The 11th annual event, which this year takes place on National Coming Out Day, aims to create safer and more supportive learning environments for GLBT students and their supporters, said David Kilmnick, chief executive of Long Island Gay and Lesbian Youth Inc., the campaign's organizer.

Before the event, the group gave workshops at some schools and provided participants with free kits that included ribbons, information cards, posters and "Ally" stickers, which indicate people are allies of the group.

"This gets people to listen and to think, and hopefully to take action -- to fight for safer schools and to speak up when bullying happens," Kilmnick said.

In New York, the Dignity for All Students Act, which took effect July 1, expanded instruction on concepts of tolerance and dignity and made schools responsible for collecting data and reporting incidents of discrimination and harassment.

Members of the Gay-Straight Alliance at Walt Whitman High School gathered last week to assemble nearly 600 rainbow ribbons for Thursday's event. Between classes, they plan to announce national bullying statistics over the loudspeaker, said Blossom Ungurath, 17, of South Huntington, the group's co-president.

Ungurath hopes that students learn "not to judge people as much and try to put themselves in somebody else's shoes -- not throw words around so carelessly, because it can hurt someone's feelings."

Principal Kathleen Acker said Walt Whitman High School has created "safe rooms" where students can talk to teachers if concerns or problems arise during the school year.

"We really need for students, when they walk in the door here, to feel that they're in a safe place, that they're accepted . . . to make sure that they're academically successful," she said. "If they feel bullied, we can't get that done."

Some teachers at Great Neck South High School will incorporate issues pertaining to GLBT youth and anti-bullying in their classes, said Joan Greenberg, a guidance counselor who is adviser to the school's Gay-Straight Alliance.

The campaign day raises the consciousness of students who might use phrases such as "That's so gay," Greenberg said.

"They really mean, 'That's stupid,' and it's an offensive statement, but I don't think that people even think of it that way," she said.

Bay Shore High School has participated in the campaign for the past decade, principal Robert Pashkin said.

"Our hope is always that students become better informed about the world around them, gain a greater awareness about the issue of bullying, and develop an increased sense of belonging and tolerance," Pashkin said in a statement.

At West Babylon High School, the day is more about "the school community coming out and showing their support for safe schools" than individuals coming out about their sexual orientation, said teacher Theresa Prizzi, adviser of the Gay-Straight Alliance there.

That sentiment was important to Huntington High School senior Jaime Moskowitz, 17, who said she was cyberbullied via Facebook about her "perceived sexual orientation" when she was in middle school.

"People would message me rude things," said Moskowitz, of Huntington, who plans to take part in the awareness event.

In high school, though, "I'm seen less as that strange kid and more as a student activist," she said. "I feel comfortable to be myself now."

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