Christine Cryjak, right, of West Babylon, with her sixteen year...

Christine Cryjak, right, of West Babylon, with her sixteen year old daughter Cat. Christine will be the Suffolk County chair of the Long Island Gay Parent Teacher Association. (Oct. 27, 2011) Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

A new parent-teacher organization is forming on Long Island to support gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students, and among its goals is the expansion of curriculum to include information about GLBT leaders and history.

The Long Island Gay Parent Teacher Association, which is to hold its first meeting Wednesday, has its mission already set: Use the backing of parents and teachers to make Nassau and Suffolk public schools more inclusive and safer.

One of the best ways to do that is to talk about GLBT people in mainstream lesson plans, not just in gay-straight alliance clubs or events promoting diversity, said David Kilmnick, chief executive of Long Island GLBT Services Network, an association of five nonprofit organizations.

Just as students learn about Martin Luther King Jr. and his civil rights efforts, they should be taught about Harvey Milk, the assassinated gay rights activist, who was born in Woodmere and graduated from Bay Shore High School, Kilmnick said. "If kids start to admire gay people . . . it starts to break down the illogical reasons for homophobia," he said.

Catherine Kryjak, 17, a junior at West Babylon High School who identified herself as gay, supported the effort. "We should just teach history. Not just black history or white history, girl history or boy history or gay history," she said.

Working with parents and teachers to support student organizations, address homophobic language and create inclusive lesson plans brings visibility to equality issues and goes a long way toward improving them, said Elisa Waters, a Spanish teacher at Jericho Middle School, who has been advising K-12 teachers in the district about GLBT topics and curriculum since 2005.

"We're not just talking about gay kids," Waters said. "We're trying to give voice to straight kids who may have gay parents, uncles and relatives."

 

Gay-straight school clubs

Organizers said they believe their group is the first of its kind in the nation. They acknowledged the possibility of some resistance, but noted the interest exists with gay-straight alliance clubs in 107 school districts across Long Island.

"It will definitely be a battle, but a battle that needs to happen," Kilmnick said. "It's only right that GLBT history and historical figures who are GLBT are included in learning about U.S. history."

James Martinez, senior manager of media relations at the National PTA, said the organization is not aware of any chartered PTA group with a mission based on sexual orientation. "We're supportive of all parents that are trying to do good by their child and all children," he said.

James Murray, principal of the Plainview-Old Bethpage district's John F. Kennedy High School, said he considers the Gay PTA similar to SEPTA, a PTA focused on students requiring special education, in that they both advocate for students with special needs.

"I think that population of our student body -- in many cases they're afraid. They're afraid to be who they are. They're afraid they'll be the target of bullying," Murray said. "Anything we can do to support them, we will."

The LI Gay PTA will have Suffolk and Nassau county chairpersons and meet bi-weekly at the services network's new office in Garden City. The group is open to gay and straight parents and teachers who want to change the school environment, Kilmnick said.

The inaugural agenda includes developing an action plan and goals for this school year.

LI Gay PTA will also support the formation of gay-straight alliance clubs in schools; provide sensitivity training to other parent-teacher organizations; as well as support and networking for families.

Organizers expect to seek funding from private foundations for school books and educational materials.

As support for their efforts, the group cites the Dignity for All Students Act, passed by the State Legislature last year to combat harassment in schools based on race, religion, disability, sexual orientation and gender.

It requires schools to inform students of harassment and discrimination policies, develop training for teachers, administrators and other employees, and report incidences of bias or discrimination to the state Board of Education.

 

Students feel unsafe

A 2009 nationwide study of school climate for GLBT students between the ages of 13 and 21 found that 61.1 percent of students surveyed felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation, according to New York-based Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network.

The New York State PTA is developing policies related to the Dignity Act, but will focus on at-risk groups as a whole, not on individual groups, executive administrator Richard Longhurst said.

State PTA president Maria Fletcher said she was troubled the group was using the term PTA, which is trademarked. And the singular focus of LI Gay PTA may make it hard to charter.

"It would be something we'd have to look into," she said.

But a specific focus on GLBT teaching and support in Long Island schools is exactly what Kryjak and her mother, Christine Kryjak, the LI Gay PTA's Suffolk County chairwoman, want.

"Here I am, from the parent's point of view, thinking about safety and comfort, and she's happy about curriculum," Kryjak said. "I think it's great."

With Joie Tyrrell

LI Gay PTA's mission

The Long Island Gay PTA is open to parents and teachers of any sexual orientation. Its mission:

SEEK curriculum changes or additions to include information about gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender events and historical figures.

FORM gay-straight alliance clubs in every middle and high school on Long Island.

PROVIDE diversity training to parents and teachers.

DEVELOP a support network for parents.

The first meeting is Wednesday at The Center at Garden City, 400 Garden City Plaza, Ste. 110.It starts at 7 p.m. For more information call 516-323-0011 or email info@ligaly.org.

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