By Kitty Merrill
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When it comes to offering programs that foster a safe environment for Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender youth, the East Hampton School District is "a role model," according to David Kilmnick. The chief executive officer of the advocacy organization Long Island Gay and Lesbian Youth facilitated a community forum at the high school on Monday night.
The focus of the outing was two-pronged – to brainstorm ways to make East Hampton's good programs better and to discuss creation a GLBT center on the East End.
With a portrait of David Hernandez Barros on a huge screen behind him, Kilmnick spoke of the obstacles faced by LGBT teens. It's been rumored that Barros, an EHHS student took his own life last month because he was bullied by other students because he was gay.
"David is what brought us here," Kilmnick said. "But before David this was happening and after David it will still happen." Nevertheless, the community can do more to address the "epidemic' of school bullying.
Though sparsely attended -- there were few students in the audience and even fewer Latino community members or parents -- the 90-minute discussion was marked by a determined desire to address the problem, despite rather harrowing statistics.
Kilmnick reported that GLBT youth are twice as likely to say they have been physically assaulted at school, with Hispanic GLBT experiencing an even higher level of verbal and physical harassment. Eighty five percent of GLBT kids report hearing anti-gay and homophobic language on a regular basis, 60 percent of GLBT youth report feeling unsafe because of their sexual orientation, 55 percent report experiencing cyber bullying, and four in 10 say they live in a community that is not accepting of them.
"There's nowhere they can go where they can simply be themselves," Kilmnick said.
An island-wide organization that will celebrate its 20th anniversary next year, LIGALY operates two youth centers up west and is looking to open one on the East End. Two existing centers – in Bay Shore and Garden City – offer an array of services, but most of all they provide a place where "kids can just sit down, relax, and be themselves. It sounds so simple, but it saves lives," said Kilmnick.
Joel Johnson, an EHHS junior and president of the school's Gay Straight Alliance, reported that he travelled with friends the 60 miles to the Bay Shore center every Friday night for its weekly social event last year. Being there, he said, "gave me the courage to come out to my parents, and that gave me the courage to come out to my friends . . . I hope everyone has that opportunity to feel safe."
LIGALY has already received a $20,000 matching grant pledge for the center from Beatrice Alda and Jennifer Brooke. On Monday night Beverly Dash and Debra Lobel pledged another $2500. An advisory committee is being organized, and Kilmnick reported both Suffolk County and Southampton Town officials offered support in finding a space. Assemblyman Fred Thiele and Southampton Town Councilwoman Bridget Fleming were both in attendance Monday night.
LIGALY has no qualms about calling school districts that aren't supportive to task, Kilmnick said. It hasn't had to in East Hampton. LIGALY has been working with the district for over 17 years. Offering praise for its efforts, Kilmnick reported, the district boasts the only Gay Straight Alliance offered at the middle school level in Suffolk County.
Fingers were pointed at the district following the suicide, particularly since district officials declined to discuss specifics of Barros' school life. (It's prohibited by federal law). Assistant principal Maria Mondini, a lesbian who remained closeted for the first 20 of her 28 years as an educator said that at the school, "We do deal with things head-on."
This week, the district will bring in outside experts to assess the school climate. High School Principal Adam Fine reported that while the district could have provided a knee jerk response to the suicide, "We're looking for lasting change."
Audience members offered a variety of suggestions and requests. Pediatric caregiver Harriet Hillman wants to make sure some programs are tailored to the different needs of the Latino population, while another audience member wondered whether the same anti-bullying training given to teachers can be provided for the community.
Others spoke about the responsibility of government and kids' own families when it comes to social problems. Dan Harnett, a school social worker, pointed out that since local government cut funding for programs, the school has had to take on more of those activities. Perhaps the town has a building it can offer as a home for the LIGALY center, he said wryly.
Rhonnie Winokur, a bus driver with the district, wants to find a positive way to help kids who bully. A lesbian who suffered an abusive family life, she suggested that kids who bully are often bullied themselves at home. "What are we going to do" she asked, "Beat them up more?"
Pastor Katrina Foster of St. Michael's Lutheran Church in Amagansett pointed out that not all churches are anti-gay. "We're ready to work with you," she said, announcing that on November 1 her congregation will do a presentation on the Bible and sexuality at Windmill Village. It will be offered in English and Spanish.