Bay Windows 3/24/94

On March 24, 1994, Bay Windows covered the aftermath of the Gay and Lesbian Student Rights Law which I worked on in 1993.

More from Christopher Muther:

Jennifer Adleman has been dissatisfied with the way her Boston-area school has responded to anti-gay slurs and harassment.

Adelman, a 17-year-old junior at the 1,000-student Arlington High School, said a gay and lesbian task force, made up only of Arlington High faculty, has been meeting since January and the student said she has seen little come out of the group to improve the environment at the school.

“They’ve had a lot of meetings, but so far nothing’s changed,” she said.

Adleman and other students want to start their own gay/straight alliance and plan pro-gay activities at the school, and now she says she has found the legal route to do it. Adleman was one of approximately 175 Massachusetts high school students, teachers and administrators who attended a training session at Northeastern University on March 19 to learn how to use a newly-enacted state gay and lesbian student rights law in their favor.

Through opening remarks by heads of organizations like the Massachusetts Department of Education and the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination and a series of six workshops, students, teachers and faculty learned how to make the most of the law.

“We wanted to give them resources, places to go if they need help,” said Michael Leclerc, a member of the Boston-based Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights and a conference organizer. “We also just wanted them to give a chance to talk to one another, so students in Duxbury who are just starting up a gay/straight alliance can have an opportunity to talk to students at Brookline High School, who have had a gay/straight alliance for a while.”

The gay student rights legislation which was signed in to law December 10 and goes into effect this month, appears simple, protecting students against discrimination in admission to schools and classes. However, it also gives students legal recourse if they feel discriminated against because of their sexual orientation.

Massachusetts is the only state in the country to explicitly ban anti-gay discrimination against public school students. Under the law, if a student feels they are being discriminated against and the school is not addressing the problem, the student can sue their school for tuition at another school.

David LaFontaine, chair of the Coalition said the March 19 training was part of a new statewide campaign to make sure students know the law is in effect. Students and faculty memebers were urged to translate the law creatively and ue it to their benefit in convincing school administrators that pro-gay programs are needed.

“It was very broadly written and can be used in a myriad of ways,” La Fontaine said. “Students can be much bolder in coming out for gay student rights and can be forceful that school administration deal with homophobia.”

If a student feels administrators are not adequately addressing anti-gay behavior, LaFontaine said the student can request a school-wide assembly on the issue or faculty training.

“The law gives students options about how a situation should be best handled, and they can use the law as leverage to work out a problem,” he said. “The last thing any school wants is to be sued and receive bad press. With this they can offer an option to the school board.”

The process in which students would take action against schools has not yet been determined, according to Michael Duffy, chairman of the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. Duffy said he is scheduled to meet this week with officials from the Department of Education to come up with guidelines. He said student complaints will first be handled by the Department of Education before going any further.

Duffy told conference participants that discrimination, bullying and prejudice “didn’t end with the stroke of a pen,” and that students would have to come out and be assertive to help change their environment.

“Everybody I talked to said they are still experiencing, to varying degrees, an inhospitable atmosphere in their school,” Duffy said following the conference, “even in the most open-minded schools in the Boston area.”

Mary Bonauto, an attorney with the Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, told students that the law is important not so much to sue schools, but to use as a bargaining chip to make sure student concerns are addressed,

“Schools need to be creative in making this work for them,” she said. They need to ensure they’re providing a safe environment for learning.”

In order to take legal action against a school, LaFontaine said it is important for students to document in writing any harassment they are experiencing, The information shouldn’t be given to the school principal, with carbon copies sent to the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, the Governor’s Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth and the Department of Education.

Once a school is notified there is a problem, LaFontaine said those agencies can give suggestions on how the problem can be handled. If that doesn’t work, he said an outside organization can be brought in to help remedy the problem.

“I hear a lot of frustrating stories,” he said. “There are schools claiming to be dealing with the problem, but in reality they’re not.”

In addition to problems in Arlington, a group of gay and lesbian students in Concord/Carlisle regional school district who want to form a group specifically for gay students are being told they can’t meet on school grounds.

“They are being bolstered by this law,” he said. “They have the same right as any other school club. As long as they follow the rules they can meet on school grounds. Just because you’re a group who is for gay rights doesn’t mean you can’t meet,”