One of North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory’s (R) nominees for the State Board of Education has a long history of opposing anti-bullying measures aimed at protecting LGBT students, and gay rights advocates are worried about the implications if he is confirmed.
A. L. “Buddy” Collins is an attorney and a longtime member of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School Board of Education. He has clashed with the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) over the years surrounding the group’s efforts to stop bullying on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
“Buddy Collins has always been a retrograde voice, inimical to the interests of youth, on the school board,” said GLSEN Executive Director Eliza Byard. “He has directly tried to block efforts to fully understand [students'] experiences in the service of making things better in schools in his district.”
Matt Comer was born and raised in Winston-Salem and went to public school at R.J. Reynolds High School, which is under Collins’ jurisdiction. Collins was on the board while Comer was a student, and the two even shook hands when he crossed the stage for graduation in 2004.
“Every time this issue [of LGBT bullying] came before the school board, Buddy Collins voted against it,” said Comer, who is now editor of QNotes, a Charlotte-based LGBT publication. “Buddy Collins was a ringleader in making sure GLSEN had no access to the schools.”
And bullying was indeed a problem at Comer’s high school. He started a gay-straight alliance there, in part because there was no support network for students who were facing harassment — both from their peers and from the adults who were supposed to protect them.
“No one was doing anything,” said Comer. “The bullying was rampant, and it was not just from students. School officials were also engaging in anti-gay behavior and making anti-gay remarks. I heard many of those remarks myself. It was very frustrating for students because we felt like we had to do everything on our own, and the only support we had at the time was from [local LGBT groups].”
“It was not just that teachers or coaches were making anti-gay comments, but school board members were making anti-gay comments too,” he added. “So from the very top down, there was a very open, well-known and well-documented hostility toward LGBT people from the adults in our lives.”
Collins, according to Comer and Byard, was part of this culture. On April 13, 2002, he published a column in the Winston-Salem Journal arguing that while “no child should be a victim of harassment while at school,” “public endorsement of a homosexual union and homosexual sexual practices is another matter entirely.”
Even so, Collins was not the most outspoken opponent. That designation went to another board member named Jeannie Metcalf, who defended anti-gay bullying in 2003 by saying, “I think homosexuality is a sin. If they want to make fun of them, I don’t have a problem with it.”
Collins — and a majority of the school board — resisted GLSEN’s efforts to make “sexual orientation” a protected category in the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school system’s nondiscrimination policy.
“I think it has everything to do with whether people who are gay and lesbian have some sort of special right that everybody else doesn’t,” Collins said at the time, according to a Feb. 15, 2002 article in the Winston-Salem Journal. “This request could have been made by people with overweight children or kids with glasses or any other thing that children pick on other children for.”
Another conflict took place the following year, when the school system amended its annual parent-student survey to include new questions about bullying, racism, homophobia, sexism and discrimination against handicapped students. The school board voted to reverse that decision, with Collins one of the board members who sided against inclusion.
Collins also fought against giving GLSEN any access to school officials, chastising the superintendent for meeting with GLSEN representatives, who were, according to a Feb. 21, 2003 article in the Winston-Salem Journal, “try[ing] to get a handle on how much harassment goes on at school.”
What Byard finds most troubling about Collins’ nomination is that it comes as North Carolina debates the role and expansion of publicly funded charter schools.
“All the protections we’ve managed to win in the public settings are going to be undermined by these alternative systems of education, and that’s what I really worry about with having folks like Buddy Collins in charge,” she said.
“The thing I would say is that the United States Department of Education has specifically cited North Carolina’s bullying prevention law as a best practice, a model, in bullying prevention legislation,” she added. “Does Buddy Collins intend to make sure that best-practice level law is being implemented across the state? I hope the answer is yes, but I fear the answer is no based on his past actions.”
Neither Collins nor McCrory returned requests for comment for this article.
Collins needs to be approved by the Republican-controlled General Assembly, as do McCrory’s other two nominees.