St. Paul leads on schools' GLBT issues

  • Article by: MARIA ELENA BACA
  • Star Tribune
  • December 24, 2011 - 7:11 PM

Mary Tinucci, a longtime social worker for St. Paul Public Schools, once left a school visit to find the epithets "dyke" and "fag" scrawled into the road grime on her car.

Around that time she also was sitting through charged school board meetings as she tried to get the district to fund an outreach program for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) students.

Now that program is offering lessons to other school districts struggling with the same issues.

Tinucci has watched with special interest as issues involving GLBT students have come up in schools locally and nationally. A recent Anoka-Hennepin school board meeting, dealing with the district's proposal to replace its controversial "neutrality policy," involved some of the same questions that arose when St. Paul's Out for Equity program was debated. Some raised fears of a gay agenda in the classroom, while others voiced equally passionate concerns for students at-risk in a school environment that wasn't structured to support them.

Out for Equity, launched in 1994 and supported initially by grants, got its district funding in 1997. At that time, St. Paul became the nation's fourth public school district to dedicate a staff member to GLBT outreach. Seventeen years later, there still are only eight or nine nationally, including Minneapolis, according to the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN).

That's no small matter, said Shawn Gaylord, the New York-based nonprofit's public policy director.

"Any time a school is investing in having a staff person who's going to focus on these issues, that's a sign of a school district that takes the issues very seriously and is looking for a way to address LGBT issues in a productive way," he said. "If there's one person who sees their job as looking out for the interests of LGBT students, I think that's going to result in a better environment for LGBT youth overall."

GLSEN's research has found that all students benefit when schools address GLBT issues head-on, he said.

"The impact is greater than on just LGBT students," he said. "Antigay language is the language of choice for bullies."

In St. Paul, Out for Equity does everything from providing field-trip buses for the district's four Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) clubs to offering antibullying and outreach training to staff.

Programs serve 150

The new program coordinator, Tiffany Lane, is available to provide one-to-one support for family members struggling with their own or a child's sexual identity. She hosts a safe space for a weekly social gathering for GLBT teens and their straight friends. A group for parents is set to launch in January.

The district program has an annual budget of about $164,000 that covers operating expenses and two staff members.

Lane says that as many as 150 GLBT kids participate in Out for Equity's programming.

On a recent Friday night, 35 teens turned out at a St. Paul park recreation building to shoot hoops, watch movies, play Foosball, do arts and crafts; in recent weeks they have baked cookies, watched holiday movies, sang karaoke.

"We want to make sure they have that support and advocacy on their behalf," Lane said. "We're saying we should embrace all families and all students."

Locally, other districts continue to work on how to best handle GLBT issues.

Throughout the past two years, Anoka-Hennepin's situation has been most prominent, as it has faced a federal investigation over allegations of bullying and harassment based on sexual orientation.

It also has faced a lawsuit seeking repeal of its Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy, the so-called neutrality policy that requires teachers to remain neutral on issues involving sexual orientation.

The district has a blanket antibullying policy but has stepped up efforts this year. It also is considering replacing the neutrality policy with a broader Controversial Topics Curriculum Policy, a proposal that drew sharp criticism from supporters and opponents of the current policy at a recent board meeting. The debate will continue next month.

Junior Breanne Sande has attended St. Paul schools since kindergarten; she has been out for five years. She doesn't go to the Friday gatherings, but she is vice president of her Central High School GSA and attends a weekly group, mostly to support students who still are struggling with the process of coming out.

She has gay friends, and straight friends.

Though she knows her experience is not universal, she said she feels confident that her teachers and most of her peers accept her for who she is. She also said she knows, from experience, that when she reports harassment it will be dealt with immediately.

Retention strategy

"I'm openly out, everyone knows, and I don't have troubles with that," she said. "Our school has established an environment where you can be who you are and the teachers acknowledge you and they're fine with who you are as a person."

Darlene Fry is assistant director in the St. Paul district's Office of College and Career Readiness. For her, outreach to GLBT students is a retention strategy as much as anything else.

"Right now what we're focusing on is the fact if you don't feel safe and valued in your school, more than likely you're not going to continue your education," she said. "The issue for us is to have them be able to complete their high school education ... and not limit their opportunities because they don't feel safe with who they are in our school district."

A difference-maker

The outreach made a difference for Brett Campos. In 1994, as Tinucci was planning Out for Equity's start-up, Campos was deciding to drop out of school.

Her girlfriend had just dropped out and joined the military. The two had been the target of ridicule, she said, and now it was just her.

Campos had to have a form signed by all of her teachers, but one of them -- choir teacher Nannette Stroebel -- refused.

Campos finished out her junior year attending only choir class. By the next year, she was involved with Out for Equity. Finding supportive adults and peers helped her find peace with who she is, she said, and focus on graduating with her class of '95.

Tinucci and Stroebel "were saviors for me," said Campos, now a mechanic with a partner of four years. "They just let me talk and were just like, 'Whatever you say is OK; you're still OK.'"

Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409

© 2018 Star Tribune