The Out and Proud Grays Harbor Coalition hosted a community forum in Hoquiam Sunday night to address an alleged culture of harassment at Aberdeen High School after events during a Gay Straight Alliance protest last Wednesday heightened concerns for LGBTQ+ students.
Many in the crowd at the Events on Emerson venue expressed anger, outrage and shed tears as they related their personal experiences with harassment in Aberdeen schools and the community at large, discussed what can be changed at the school to help students feel safe and how to follow through with implementing those changes. Organizers said 38 people, including the Daily World reporter covering the event, signed the signup sheet. The crowd was a mix of about five GSA students from the high school, parents, children and members of the coalition.
“I think that we have a good starting place on where to go and how to better help support these kids,” said Jen Gillies, president of the coalition and organizer of the event.
Aberdeen School Board member William Dyer attended the forum. He said he was there to listen to the community’s concerns and would take them back to the board.
“I’m looking forward to meeting and debriefing with the GSA at their next meeting on the seventh,” school district Superintendent Alicia Henderson said on Monday. “We want all students to feel welcome and included,” she added.
During part of the forum, groups of five or six sat at tables and talked about what can be done to help LGBTQ+ students. They stressed accountability and follow-up to press for changes.
Here are some of the actions the group wants to pursue.
There was a wide consensus that the national suicide prevention hotline and numbers for students to get crisis support counseling should be added to cards that are distributed to students. Out and Proud has committed to having cards printed before classes resume in January.
The students wanted to see proof that teachers at the high school are receiving meaningful LGBTQ+ awareness training. Teachers are currently required by the state to do only 20 minutes of online LGBTQ+ awareness training every other year.
Students recommended that their classmates at the high school also receive LGBTQ+ awareness training.
Gillies stressed the importance of raising awareness about the district’s harassment, intimidation and bullying policy and complaint forms. She said students should use the forms, which are available on the school’s website, to report every instance of harassment in order to document the severity of the problem at the high school and other schools in the district.
The students asked for more cameras and security at the high school. They said there are areas in the school and outside of it that the cameras don’t cover, and that harassment often occurs in those areas since the harassers know where they are.
The students wanted stricter punishments handed down by the school for harassment. In cases in which part of the punishment is calling the offender’s parents, it may have no effect since parents of harassers may be homophobic and unlikely to take the calls seriously, they said.
There was a request for a formal liaison between the local LGBTQ+ community and the school district. Gillies met with Superintendent Henderson last week after the protests and was suggested as a candidate.
It was recommended that every school in the county have a Gay Straight Alliance and for the groups to be connected so they can communicate about issues that affect the whole community.
When asked about increased LGBTQ+ awareness education for teachers and students or other steps the district could take to improve the situation, Henderson said Monday, “I need to get my bearing on what’s been done already and what we still need to do.” She stressed that the district’s investigation into events at the high school last week is ongoing, but said the school is closed and nothing is being done until winter vacation is over.
Gay Straight Alliance students reported feeling concerned for their safety at the school during their protests on Wednesday and for the rest of the week as they said the high school administrators’ effort to deal with the situation weren’t adequate. Students were temporarily isolated in rooms on Thursday and Friday and told to go home if they didn’t feel safe. They said they were urged to walk in pairs to prevent harassment.