Making the Massachusetts legislation work is one of the challenges facing the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Department of Education – specifically, people like Jeff Perrotti. His job is to translate the act’s theory into reality. Fortunately, it is a task he relishes.
“This bill is remarkable – it’s a major thing,” he began. “It give gay and lesbian kids real protection. Schools are mandated to develop an atmosphere that prevents harassment. The effects can really be far-reaching. In the past this law has been the basis for textbook changes; it’s led to reparations for people of color, changing perceptions of women’s roles different types of teacher training about discrimination and harassment. Now we’re taking it one step further.”
Among Jeff’s biggest challenges is “letting schools know exactly what this means for them. That’s a huge educational task, just letting them know that this exists. The anti-discrimination statutes have been on the books since 1971, but some schools still don’t have a contact person for compliance. So we’ll be doing lots of interpreting for schools helping them revise their regulations.”
Obstacles exist. One relates to the overall nature of school change and how new programs are presented and institutionalized. “Anything that’s new straddles the fine line between what’s needed because it’s not being done, and what’s not really new or is deemed unnecessary,” Mr. Perrotti explained. “If something is presented as too new, it may be seen as faddish or peripheral. But if it’s presented another way, it can be diluted or simply not happen.” The bureaucrats and educators assigned to the program at the Department of Education and in school district offices are keys to its success, he said, but they must have the support of insiders in each building. “If people pushing the program are seen as too ‘outside,’ they won’t have the clout to get something going and then institutionalized,” he continued. “On the other hand, if you involve too many ‘tried and true’ people, you run the risk that it never happens in a new and exciting way.”
The challenge for Mr. Perrotti and his colleagues, then, is to bring in excited, energized people who have sensitivity to schools, which are cultures of their own filled with rigid barriers against being told what to do. That is not easy; few people feel comfortable in both the Department of Education and school worlds, he said. And both are incredible bureaucracies.
Any program’s success, Mr. Perrotti noted, turns on “empowering people at the lowest level. That’s where the work really goes on – but it can be incredibly frustrating. Bureaucracies are antithetical to empowering people.”
However, he added one important caveat: “Students and parents have incredible power in schools. If they want something to happen, they can make it. We’ve come to realize how important parents are in this whole issue. Without a doubt, the most moving speakers we heard in the debate over amending the bill were the parents talking about accepting their gay and lesbian kids. PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) is often on the outskirts of the gay community, but they’ve been integral on this issue and to this program.”
Another obstacle to act’s success is one that’s seldom talked about, Mr. Perrotti said: “This involves teachers who don’t feel safe coming out, and others in our community who find it too painful or fearful to be around kids. There are a lot of internalized worries to overcome.”
Yet the Department of Education director sees that as an exciting challenge, too. “To let gays know they can take care of their kids – to talk about youth suicide, and overcome the four taboos of death, suicide, youth sexuality, and homosexuality – it takes a lot, but we’re doing it. We’re sensitizing and educating the gay and lesbian community that these are issues, that they’re important issues, and that they should be talked about. And once we do it, we’ve found the gay community to be very, very generous with time, energy, expertise, and resources. It’s an issue that involves everyone, not just kids in high school and their teachers, and the response has stared to be very, very gratifying.”