Most local school districts ignore state’s anti-gay bullying law – First of two parts

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Courtesy of The Daily News Los Angeles

LONG BEACH — For three consecutive years, Alyssa Mullenix, a 17-year-old senior at Lakewood High School, said she has been harassed with anti-gay slurs and physically assaulted by fellow students because she is a lesbian.

As a sophomore, Mullenix said she skipped her second semester because she didn’t feel safe at school.

“I feel like a second-class citizen,” Mullenix said. “It makes me feel less than human.”

Such bullying and harassment led to the creation of AB 9, The Safe Place to Learn Act, which was signed in October by Gov. Jerry Brown.

The legislation requires districts to update their anti-harassment and anti-bullying policies and include actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity and expression, as well as race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, disability and religion.

Districts also are required to inform students and parents of their rights and have a plan to quickly investigate and solve harassment and bullying.

However none of the six Long Beach area school districts complied with the bill’s July 1 deadline, and only one, Long Beach Unified School District, has since met the requirements, a Press-Telegram investigation has found.

Districts not compliant

AB 9, also known as “Seth’s Law,” was named after Seth Walsh, a 13-year-old gay student from Tehachapi who killed himself in September 2010. Walsh had faced relentless anti-gay harassment at school, which federal investigators found that school officials had ignored.

Passage of the law was intended to stem the negative consequences of bullying for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students, including higher risks for poor academic performance, depression and suicide, other studies have found.

The LBUSD updated its policies to conform with the new law on July 3, officials there said.

Officials at Downey, Paramount and Norwalk-La Mirada unified school districts said they were unaware of AB 9′s mandate to update their bullying and harassment policies. Officials from those three districts and ABC Unified School District said that compliant policies would be presented at upcoming board meetings.

Bellflower Unified School District Superintendent Brian Jacobs refused to speak with the Press-Telegram about why the district hadn’t complied with the new requirements and when they would be updated.

However, come November, Bellflower and other California school districts won’t have the option to say “no comment” about AB 9.

That’s when the state is set to begin a nine-month audit of all public schools to check compliance and implementation of the state’s anti-harassment and anti-bullying laws. The auditor will then make recommendations based on the findings.

“I find it hard to believe, in this day and age, they are unaware. We sent out notices,” said Stephanie Papas, a school health education consultant with the California Department of Education.

“Failing to comply with AB 9 is unacceptable,” Papas said. “This is an important issue and schools need to understand their obligations and responsibilities. Schools will be monitored on compliance with the law.”

Said Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, one of AB 9′s sponsors: “Previous to AB 9, school districts were playing the ‘three monkey’ laws about harassment and bullying of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students: Hear no evil, see no evil and speak no evil. We hope that will now change.”

Mullenix’s father, Tim, said he spoke with Lakewood High School officials numerous times about Alyssa being bullied and is frustrated and angry about the school’s apparent lack of action.

“I’ve heard every excuse I could possibly hear,” he said. “It’s still acceptable to abuse gays and lesbians. The school is responsible to create a safe environment. They have failed to do their job.”

Lakewood co-principal Cheryl Conejo declined to speak with the Press-Telegram and referred inquiries to LBUSD spokesman Chris Eftychiou.

He said the district “cannot comment in detail about the specific instances that you’re citing because we’re obligated by law to protect student and employee privacy in these circumstances.

“However, the school district, through various school board policies, programs and curriculum, takes a firm stand against harassment or bullying of students for any reason. We want all students to feel comfortable, safe and respected at school so that they can focus on learning and reaching their full potential.”

L.A. Unified leads the way

One school district has been proactive in combating anti-gay behavior.

The Los Angeles Unified School District’s Project 10 is a district-wide program that, among other things, has provided sensitivity training on sexual orientation issues and how to recognize and prevent discrimination, bullying and harassment of gay students to more than 35,000 teachers and administrators.

The district has long had the policies in place that are required by AB 9 and is working on an annual online seminar that would update all faculty and staff on LGBT issues, officials said.

Project 10 was launched in 1984 at Fairfax High School by Virginia Uribe, a lesbian teacher, after a gay male student who had been verbally harassed and assaulted was transferred to another high school.

Three years later, Project 10 was expanded to the entire district.

None of the six Long Beach-area school districts has a program similar to Project 10.

In 1988, LAUSD was one of the first school districts in the state to pass a student and staff nondiscrimination policy including sexual orientation.

“Virginia’s activism became institutionalized,” said Project 10 specialist Stephen Jimenez.

In 1990, LBUSD had the chance to implement its own Project 10. However, the district met resistance from conservative groups, and administrators decided to table the program.

Since 2000, California has passed two student-protection laws, making California one of 14 states protecting students from harassment based on sexual orientation and one of 12 states protecting students based on gender expression and identity.

From words to action

Experts and teachers say, though, that comprehensive implementation and enforcement of these laws, including AB 9, has been lacking.

Districts must do more than just include the words “gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender” in policies, and should be inclusive of LGBT students and train teachers on LGBT issues, experts say.

School administrators and teachers shouldn’t wait for students to report bullying incidents; they should reach out to students, asking them if bullying and harassment is happening, and if it is, let them know it’s safe to report it, said Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

This fall, staff from the Long Beach Gay and Lesbian Center and Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network (GLSEN) will train LBUSD high school administrators and counselors on LGBT issues and bullying prevention. The district will devise a plan to train, by the end of the 2012-2013 school year, the other high school staff, including teachers, said Tiffany Brown, the district’s director of coordinated student services.

ABC will train all K-12 staff on AB 9 compliance, including LGBT issues, by the end of 2012, said Tim Catlin, the district’s child welfare and attendance supervisor.

Downey, Paramount and Norwalk-La Mirada school districts have no plans to provide staff training on LGBT issues, officials said.

“The administration talks about harassment, but they haven’t addressed the gay aspect,” said Alicia Villegas, an art teacher at La Mirada High School and faculty adviser for the school’s gay-straight alliance student club. “We need to have that training.”

Mary Thornton-Jahn, an English teacher at Lakewood High School who is the faculty adviser for that school’s alliance club, says the school isn’t doing enough.

“The administration isn’t specific with addressing gay students. They don’t make a big effort to show (anti-gay behavior) is unacceptable,” she said. “These students are trying to fit in and figure out who they are and in some situations not `out’ themselves. They shouldn’t have to wear a shirt saying, `I’m gay,’ to be protected.”

The main reason that school districts aren’t discussing LGBT issues is fear, said LAUSD’s Jimenez.

“Districts are absolutely uncomfortable talking about LGBT issues,” he said. “There’s a culture of fear. They are afraid of vocal, anti-gay parents coming forward and complaining.

“Some parents think LGBT rights means you’re talking about sex. You’re not,” Jimenez said. “We are following laws set up by our Legislature that guarantee students the civil right to attend school in a safe environment.”

Papas, the consultant with the California Department of Education, says districts must get with the program and protect LGBT students.

“Apart from AB 9, we have the state constitution that says students and staff of public schools have the inalienable rights to attend campuses that are safe, secure and peaceful,” she said. “Those are your marching orders. What more do you need?”


AB 9 requires public schools in California to:

– Adopt a strong anti-bullying policy that specifically spells out prohibited targets for bullying, including sexual orientation and gender identity/gender expression.

– Adopt a specific process for receiving and investigating complaints of bullying, including a requirement that school staff members intervene if they witness bullying.

– Publicize the anti-bullying policy and complaint process, including posting the policy in all schools and offices

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