Panelists enjoy some light laughter after a student's joke during discussion. L-R: GLSEN Executive Director Eliza Byard, Freedom Center for Social Justice's Bishop Tonyia Rawls, school counselor Myque Harris and students Dean Hill and Brandon Perez.
Panelists enjoy some light laughter after a student's joke during discussion. L-R: GLSEN Executive Director Eliza Byard, Freedom Center for Social Justice's Bishop Tonyia Rawls, school counselor Myque Harris and students Dean Hill and Brandon Perez.
Panelists enjoy some light laughter after a student’s joke during discussion. L-R: GLSEN Executive Director Eliza Byard, Freedom Center for Social Justice’s Bishop Tonyia Rawls, school counselor Myque Harris, with students and Time Out Youth board members Dean Hill and Brandon Perez.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — About 50 people gathered on Wednesday evening for a panel discussion on making schools safer for LGBT students, as the executive director of a national LGBT organization participated in celebration of her group’s successful nationwide safe schools campaign.

Eliza Byard, executive director of the New York City-based Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), came to Charlotte’s Time Out Youth Center on Wednesday to participate in the panel discussion. She spoke about GLSEN’s efforts to ensure safer climates for LGBT youth across the country and asked community members to help make change locally.

“We’ve see a lot of progress but that progress is under attack,” Byard said. “We have to be vigilant about efforts to roll back what we’ve achieved.”

In North Carolina, LGBT students are protected under a 2009 law which added sexual orientation and gender identity to statewide anti-bullying regulations.

But, Byard said nothing can be taken for granted. She pointed to Gov. Pat McCrory’s recent decision to appoint Winston-Salem/Forsyth County and North Carolina Boards of Education member Buddy Collins to the state’s Task Force on Safer Schools. Collins has a history of anti-LGBT statements and an anti-LGBT record as a local school board member.

“Buddy Collins’ appointment is a slap in the face to the men, women and students across North Carolina who are trying to make our schools safer places,” she said.

Byard was joined at the panel by Equality North Carolina Executive Director Chris Sgro. His organization has also spoken out against Collins’ appointment and recently brought attention to the state’s new private school voucher program, which will allow some private schools which discriminate against LGBT students to receive public dollars.

Sgro’s group had criticized Wilmington, N.C. Myrtle Grove Christian School for their anti-LGBT admission policy while also being eligible for state money. He called the such a possibility “disturbing.” Though Myrtle Grove has announced it will not accept new voucher program scholarships, other schools which discriminate are free to do so.

Bishop Tonyia Rawls, founder of the Freedom Center for Social Justice, said programs like the new vouchers don’t ensure equal access for all students.

“We must fight, at all costs, to ensure that this state remains equal not just for some, but for all of her citizens,” Rawls said.

The panelists were joined by school counselor Myque Harris and two local students.

Brandon Perez, a 16-year-old sophomore at East Mecklenburg High School, said more attention needs to be given to actually enforcing anti-bullying policies already on the books.

“Even though the policies are they, they are not being followed through,” said Perez, who serves as the president of East Meck’s gay-straight alliance and a Time Out Youth board member.

Teachers, Perez said, can’t be everywhere, and they don’t often see the bullying or harassment that happens in locker rooms, court yards or elsewhere on campus.

“It’s those little moments that eventually get to you,” he said, calling for more training and awareness, “We need to emphasize the importance of training school staff better and making them prepared for situations that come up.”

And, too many students, he said, still have no support.

“They have nowhere to go — no support from family, from schools, from friends,” he said. “They’re stuck in this bubble.”

Dean Hill, a 15-year-old sophomore at Olympic High School, said community involvement and events like that on Wednesday help make the change needed. They also give voice to young people.

“I have experience with issues being or needing addressed in the school system,” said Hill, who is president of his school’s gay-straight alliance and also serves as a Time Out Youth board member. “So many times we are told that we don’t know what we’re talking about because of our age.”

Both Hill and Perez said students have had difficulties keeping their gay-straight alliance or other anti-bullying clubs operating because of continued lack of support and visibility.

National campaign celebrated in Charlotte

Earlier on Wednesday, Byard was joined by local students, educators and LGBT youth advocates at East Mecklenburg High School to celebrate the completion of GLSEN’s national Safe Space Kit Campaign, a project specifically designed to increase support and visibility.

The kits, provided to schools for free, include educational information for teachers and other school staff as well as safe space stickers and posters that can be displayed in classrooms as a sign of support for LGBT students. The group partnered earlier this year with Time Out Youth, a local LGBT youth services agency, to distribute the safe space kits to local schools.

Byard’s delivery yesterday marked the end of GLSEN’s three-year national campaign to provide safe space kits to each of the 63,000 middle and high schools across the country.

“We know that one of the single most important things for a student in school is to be able to identify a supportive adult,” Byard told qnotes prior to the panel. The kits’ safe space stickers and posters help students identify teachers or school staff who can help them when facing harassment or bullying. The kits also include educational materials to prepare school staff.

One supportive adult can “save a young person’s life,” Byard said. Having six or more supportive adults at a school can change school culture, trends reflected in GLSEN’s national school climate survey.

“Students who report five, six or more supportive adults available at their school, you see other indicators that they are better off,” Byard said. “They are more likely to feel connected to the school and experiencing less abuse at school.”

GLSEN’s national Safe Space Kit Campaign was assisted by local partnerships across the country. Byard noted the group has 37 chapters nationally and works with local groups like Time Out Youth.

“When it comes right down to it, schools are local institutions, and school governance goes right down to a local level,” Byard said. “What’s absolutely critical is building the kind of relationships that let people in the schools know that support will be there in their community.”

Matt Comer

Matt Comer previously served as editor from October 2007 through August 2015 and as a staff writer afterward in 2016.