The department also spent its first year developing a student-based theater production that addressed gay and lesbian school safety. They made a training video for cable public-access television, planned resource manuals for students and families, organized four regional guidance counselor forums, and published a statewide directory of mental health practitioners and agencies. In the spring the department ran a large conference at which teachers, administrators, and students shared information about the use of their grants.
Though the program touched only a third of Massachusetts’s high schools in its first year, many of them from suburban and rural districts (city systems were curiously slow to respond), Mr. Perrotti was not discouraged. “We’re reaching out to the ones that aren’t involved,” he said, “We let them know what other schools are doing and encourage them to get involved. It’s an ongoing process. Our goal is to get every school to have a liaison, so they’ll have access to all our resources, materials, workshops, and newsletters. The department is making it clear this is not mandatory, but we hope every school will realize it’s available and important.”
Mr. Perrotti, who entered his first year as director of the Safe Schools Program with high expectations, admitted that his definition of “success” was modified. “What I define as ‘success’ might not sound like it. But I look back on these regional workshops as wonderful things. At the end of one, a completely closeted teacher came out. She realized she could count on the support of her colleagues, after fearing it for more than twenty years. There’s a direct link between how safe teachers feel, and how the students in that building feel. This woman can now serve as a positive role model, and every kid in her school can gain from that.”
A similar experience occurred when he led an in-service day for 150 faculty members. “A woman stood up, came out – it was very moving – and got a standing ovation,” he continued. “You can’t underestimate the significance of those moments on an entire school’s culture. I really feel that people meeting openly gay and lesbian people will do more than anything to change attitudes. The more we can provide an openly safe environment in our schools, the more successful we’ll be. Having openly gay people at the Department of Education leading these workshops leads to people putting their toes in the water, and then going from there.”
Through his definition of success has changed, he knows from the evaluations he receives that the department’s program works. “It’s incredible,” he enthused. “People say things like, ‘This is the best use of state money I’ve ever experiences’; ‘It’s the most useful thing the Department of Education has ever done!’ People are so grateful we’re giving them access to open doors. It shows that policy is not just words – it’s power. We see that at our level: we’ve got a law, we’re here to help implement it, and by doing so we’re doing a lot for people. All it took was support from a high level, and fortunately we got that.”
And if Mr. Perrotti ever doubts the impact Massachusetts’s Safe Schools Program is having, he does not have to look farther than his own desk. He has spoken nationally on his work, and requests for information and assistance pour in from across the country. “It’s incredible he said proudly. “I just got a call the other day from North Dakota.”
But impressive as all that is, it’s not all that Governor Weld, his commission, and the Department of Education have accomplished. Aided by hundreds of young allies – some gay, some lesbian, many straight – they have succeeded in doing the near-impossible” they moved the state legislature to pas a controversial bill.
H. 3353 is its innocuous number; “An Act to Prohibit Discrimination Against Students in Public Schools on the Basis of Sexual Orientation” is its name, and it became law on December 10, 1993, when Governor Weld affixed his signature to i four days after it passed on a voice vote, with no debate. The bill – the first of its kind in the nation – protects lesbian and gay public school students from harassment and discrimination.
The wording of the bill was hardly momentous; it simply added sexual orientation to an existing public school anti-discrimination statute that included race, color, sex, religion, and national origin. In this case, however, words did not tell the whole story. Students did.
Angered by previous failures of similar bills, two of which were bottled up in Senate communities until they expired, students across Massachusetts engaged in what the New York Times’s SaraRimer called “an extraordinary lobbying campaign.” They worked for months, she said, “to affirm the rights of openly gay students to many rituals of adolescence; to form alliances and clubs, to take a date to the prom, to participate in sports.” As of March 10, 1994, any gay or lesbian student in the state who suffers harassment, discrimination, or violence, or who feels unprotected by school officials, can sue his or her district for negligence. For the first time anywhere in the United States, officials will be held accountable for the learning environments in their schools. The bill does not cover private and parochial schools. However, one advocate said, “It’s clearly going to set a tone and a standard for all schools in Massachusetts.”