A storyteller's story

Teens’ sexuality issues go with them to school

In print on August 23, 2010 at 2:31 pm

Byline: By Akilah Johnson Staff Writer
Date: Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A single gunshot fired into the torso of one 15-year-old by another in a crowded hallway at Dillard High School immediately ignited concerns about violence in South Florida’s public schools.

But smoldering under the surface is worry from some community activists about what might have sparked the shooting – a girl stung by rejection, struggling with her sexual orientation, with no one to turn to.

What support services, they question, are available to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender teens to help them come to terms with their sexuality?

It’s “the elephant that really isn’t being discussed,” said Michael Rajner, who sits on the school district’s diversity committee.

Teens are coming out earlier – on average between 15 and 17 years old – and schools must know how to help students who are questioning their sexuality, said Robert Loupo, executive director of Safe Schools of South Florida, a nonprofit agency dedicated to preventing gay students from being bullied, dropping out, or other self-destructive behavior.

“Unfortunately, as in so many cases, a tragedy will underscore and heighten the needs,” Loupo said.

Teah Wimberly, 15, dealt with her uncertainty by slicing her arms with razor blades, then hiding the scars, according to her former attorney, Gary Kollin. On Nov. 12, hours after cutting herself, he said, Wimberly went to school. Police said she fatally shot Amanda Collette, 15, her childhood friend.

Last year, Loupo said, his organization began teacher workshops to raise awareness and strengthen student/teacher trust.

Students need to know there is someone who will accept and understand them, be it a teacher or counselor, Loupo said. “Safe zone” stickers and posters on classrooms doors or lists of safe conversation topics taped to the wall, let students know that the adult inside will be a confidant.

“Most of the young people know that a rainbow or rainbow flag or pink triangle is someone who is aware and supportive of gay issues,” Loupo said of other safe symbols.

Safe zones exist in about 20 Broward County high schools through their Gay/Straight Alliances, student groups that meet regularly and plan social and service events.

More importantly, the club serves as a sanctuary, said Declan Lyons, a teacher and club adviser at Cypress Bay High School in Weston. “It’s a kind of a safe haven for the kids who want to support their gay friends or who are gay and are trying to accept themselves.”

About 80 students participate in Cypress Bay’s club – some with their parents’ knowledge, others without. Many of the school’s gay students “wouldn’t be caught dead at the GSA,” he said. “They are too afraid that it would get home to their families and there would be terrible consequences.”

Paul Battaglia, 18, and a senior at Cypress and the club’s president, said some of his fellow Junior ROTC members teased him when he came out a year ago. “But GSA was that safe haven. I could go there any time and be accepted,” he said.

School Board member Robin Bartleman said schools must take care of both the academic and basic needs of children.

“If you are struggling with some sort of emotional problem or something going on in your house or depression, then FCAT is the furthest thing from your mind,” Bartleman said.

She plans to ask district staff to evaluate the programs in place for gay students to make sure they meet students’ needs. “It’s about the whole child,” she said.

Immediately after the shooting, the community was rightly concerned with students’ physical safety, said Jim Lopresti, an administrator at SunServe. But a teenager’s emotional well-being also is important, said Lopresti, whose organization offers counseling, training and family services within the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community.

“I don’t know if the community has really named this issue,” Lopresti said. “It’s more under the surface.”

It is a difficult but necessary journey that the community must take so teens feel safe to develop into whoever they are, he said. Secrets, he added, can lead students to feel ashamed, causing them to withdraw or lash out.

Even if some are not ready to allow teens to openly express their sexuality, Lopresti said, the community – including the schools – must do so. “They were dealing with the grief of the loss of two children … but we have no choice.”

Akilah Johnson can be reached at akjohnson@sun-sentinel.com or 954-356-4527.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: