Around the same time every day last year, a transgender student at George Washington High School would pass a boy in the hallway who could speak Russian. The boy always said the same things to her, and once she secretly recorded it. The words formed a death threat.
“I was so upset I immediately brought it to Principal Jones’ attention,” said Donna Laino, a nurse at the Northeast Philadelphia high school. “The student was very vocal and open with me. We had a good relationship.”
Despite reporting the incident to Principal Gene Jones, Laino didn’t know if an investigation had started or if anyone received punishment.
“It’s difficult … trying to function and keep the ship upright in a stormy sea,” said Laino, who has worked at the school for 20 years.
Under Jones’ administration, students said they felt the principal had favorites. Some kids would get a slap on the wrist for fighting while others would get suspended for a uniform infraction, they said. After repeated fights and bullying — largely around issues of socioeconomic status, students said, but also for things like LGBT identity or race — the School District of Philadelphia removed Jones in December from his position as principal.
Susan Thompson took over the job Feb. 29 and her top priority has been school climate. She walked the hallways herself and surveyed the kids about why so many were walking around when they were supposed to be in class.
At the end of April, Thompson invited the Department of Justice to convene a workshop with George Washington’s 1,600 students. The SPIRIT program, which stands for student problem identification and resolution of issues together, had the kids use stickers to vote on what they thought the top issues were at the school.
Ezekiel Mathur, of the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations, also participated in the SPIRIT program. No formal complaint had been lodged against the school with the commission. Mathur was invited as a useful facilitator.
“It was a great day where the students themselves were together in giving a voice to the school to make it a better place,” he said.
A 25-member Spirit Advisory Council has since formed and met with Thompson this month to discuss changes in school rules and policies for the fall. Also next year, Mazzoni Center will present a faculty workshop on gender issues before launching a student awareness program, probably through an assembly, Laino said.
George Washington GSA
Laino has worked on improving the school climate for LGBT students for several years. With Chad Newton, a former teacher at George Washington who now works as a nurse, she got the word out about starting a GSA in spring 2014.
That fall, Laino opened the club with meetings every Tuesday after school. The students have sold ribbons for the Day of Silence to spread awareness of LGBT issues. The $1 ribbons raised $118 last year and $98 this year. Laino said she’s looking for a corporate sponsor for George Washington’s GSA so the group can host large-scale educational and social LGBT activities.
Fewer than 10 students regularly participate in the GSA and Laino said she’d like to see that increase. She’s working on scheduling meetings and activities during the day. It’s difficult for kids to stay after school, Laino noted, because they have jobs, live far away or don’t want to tell their parents about GSA.
“Until the school gets under control, it’s not going to be possible to teach any of the kids sexuality education or gender variance,” said Jackie Anderson, a senior in George Washington’s GSA. “They’re not going to listen if they’re running around classes or running around hallways outside.”
Robert McAvoy, another senior in the GSA, said gay slurs are more common than physical intimidation. He said sometimes the GSA bulletin board is defaced or has its posters ripped.
But Anderson and McAvoy are optimistic change will come with Thompson.
“We’re going to hopefully have new rules for teachers and students and there’s going to be more of asking us what we need and what we want rather than just letting everyone kind of run wild,” Anderson said, noting it’s important that Thompson takes her job seriously as an administrator, and does not prioritize being seen as a friend to the students.
Anderson said the GSA also takes its role seriously in educating the school about LGBT concerns.
“That will help the culture of the school,” she said. “Hopefully the bullying will stop and kids will just be more open-minded toward each other.”
Girls over here, boys over there
A project the GSA hopes to tackle next year is abolishing the separate lines for female and male students when they scan their identification cards at the beginning of the school day.
“It’s more pressure on transgender students because if they’re trying to figure it out themselves, then other people are noticing what line they’re in,” Laino said. “It’s kind of like being outed in a way.”
Anderson said she knows a transgender student who used the male line and had others ask him, “What gender are you?”
Administrators instituted separate lines to move people into the building more quickly. The male line has a male official on-hand in case a student needs to be searched, while the female line has a female official.
“That was a practice I inherited,” Thompson said, noting most schools in Philadelphia do the same thing. “Any student can choose to enter whatever line they want.”
Thompson said she is in talks with other school-climate officials to see how students could be broken up in a different way.
“We’re starting restorative conversations,” she said, “so everybody feels they’re all part of one big community.”