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Thursday, January 20, 2011

South High seniors fighting for Gay-Straight Alliance

By Andrew Hackmack -

South High School students, from left, Sam Seligman,
Kelly Egan and Joseph Kofler said they have been
denied in their efforts to start up a Gay-Straight Alliance.

Three Valley Stream South High School students say they have been denied in their attempt to start a chapter of the Gay-Straight Alliance at the school, and have reached out to district administration.
The students, Joseph Kofler, Kelly Egan and Sam Seligman, say they approached Principal Maureen Henry with the idea and even presented her with a petition signed by several hundred students as well as some teachers. They say Henry has turned them down and rejected their choice for advisors.
According to district administrators, there was a Gay-Straight Alliance Chapter at South High School two years ago, but only had a few members and was not an active club. The three students said this is true, but also noted that they believe the organization will be more successful a second time around. Kofler said at least 30 people have expressed interest in joining the organization, both gay and straight.
The organization would serve as an advocacy and support group for students, Kofler said. And, as the name suggests, it would be open to both gay and straight students who want to come together to support the school’s gay community.
"We did everything right,” Egan said in terms of applying to be a student club. “The club is already in the district. North [High School] has it. I don’t see why you wouldn’t want to promote tolerance and safety.”
The three seniors say they are concerned for the safety of gay students. Kofler said he has been bullied since ninth grade when he first came out, and said he has only gone to a school official once or twice. Rather, he said, students want to be able to look for support among each other.
Seligman, who is not gay, said he has been friends with Kofler for a long time and doesn’t understand why being gay is something to bully someone over. “It just doesn’t make sense to me,” he said.
The students sent a letter to interim Superintendent Dr. Richard Marsh, assistant superintendents Dr. Thomas Troisi and Bill Heidenreich and Board of Educaiton President Ken Cummings expressing their dissatisfaction with the situation and outlining their conversations with Henry.
Henry asked that all comments be made by the superintendent. Marsh said he was planning to look into the situation and meet with Henry about it. “It’s an important issue that the kids brought up,” he said, “and I want to make sure it’s addressed appropriately,” he said.
According to the district’s policy for student organizations, procedures for starting a student organization are to ensure that the district will register any group organized for a purpose not prohibited by the board. It also says a group must submit a list of its members and a copy of its constitution and by-laws.
The policy prohibits fraternities, sororities, gangs and other secret organizations, as well as groups that restrict membership based on race, sex, national origin or other arbitrary criteria. Egan said there is nothing secretive about this organization, and it would be open to any student at South High School. She also said they found two teachers willing to be advisors.
The students have also reached out to Long Island Gay and Lesbian Youth for support. Robert Vitelli, director of development and a 1992 graduate of South High School, said he was stunned that students are still facing obstacles to start a Gay-Straight Alliance in 2011. For 10 years, LIGALY has been helping students start and maintain a Gay-Straight Alliance at their schools, with 90 chapters started up. LIGALY also will train teachers and deliver workshops.
Vitelli said across Long Island school leaders have been more accepting of the Gay-Straight Alliance in recent years, and students are having more success starting up the club without needing the advocacy efforts of LIGALY. The situation at South, he said, seems to be a step backward. “The core issue, in my opinion, is the barriers the principal is putting up in front of them,” Vitelli said.
LIGALY will continue to fight to get a chapter of the Gay-Straight Alliance off the ground at South High School, Vitelli vowed. “We know we want to do something,” he said. “It’s trying to figure out what’s going to be the most helpful.”


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