On a chilly December day, Fox Valley leaders from every sector of the community took The Plunge.
They dove into an initiative to promote tolerance, celebrate diversity, understand LGBT issues and create safer schools.
“Every student deserves to come to school and feel safe and feel their voice is heard and respected,” said Ben Vogel, an assistant superintendent for the Appleton Area School District who took The Plunge.
The Plunge is an annual activity in the Fox Valley area sponsored by the Community Health Action Team led by ThedaCare. In December 2011, the team brought together 60 community leaders to delve into issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity. They explored language and terminology and discussed religion, politics and education.
“It’s really good to bring together people to have these conversations,” Vogel said. “Sometimes we get scared to talk about certain issues, and if you don’t talk about them, bad things can happen, and misunderstandings can happen. The first step is to get people to have conversations – honest and open dialogues.”
Vogel attended the daylong event as a representative of the school district. Other educators, business leaders, health-care experts, elected officials and police attended.
From The Plunge came an initiative called INCLUDE, sponsored by CHAT, the Community Foundation of the Fox Valley Region and the Les & Dar Stumpf Family Fund. Partners in the initiative include the Harmony Cafe, the Fox Cities and Oshkosh LGBT Anti-Violence Project, Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays and more.
The goal has been to “make the Fox Valley more inclusive, safe and welcoming for everyone,” said Chad Hershner, an INCLUDE steering committee member and development director at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin.
INCLUDE is a four-month, communitywide campaign that was launched at a breakfast in January attended by more than 350 people. An emphasis of the campaign has been reaching students and staff in schools with cautions against bullying and affirmations for acceptance.
To reach those in the schools, the INCLUDE team turned to Jamie Nabozny, a safe-schools advocate who, in the mid-1990s, challenged anti-gay bullying in Ashland, Wis., and won a settlement in a landmark federal case.
For four years, Nabozny was subject to relentless anti-gay abuse in his middle school and his high school. Students urinated on him, pretended to rape him during a class and, in one incident, kicked him so many times in the stomach he was hospitalized and needed surgery.
Nabozny attempted suicide, dropped out of school and ran away in an effort to flee the harassment. Complaints from him and his parents were ignored or dismissed by school administrators.
Eventually, Nabozny went to court, with the support of attorneys from Lambda Legal. In July 1996, he won a federal appeals court ruling that said public schools must protect students from anti-gay abuse. Months later, a jury in Ashland found school administrators liable for failing to protect Nabozny. Before the jury could decide damages, the school district settled with a nearly $1 million award.
Nabozny, who lives in Minneapolis, said he learned of INCLUDE through a PFLAG representative.
He’s used to traveling to speak to schools about bullying, but the Fox Valley community campaign is the biggest he’s been involved in, with 23 speaking engagements.
“I was blown away by what happened,” he said. “Out of this will come change, huge change.”
Nabozny went to Appleton for the INCLUDE breakfast in January, gave community talks at the University of Wisconsin-Fox Valley and Lawrence University and led school assemblies with students and staff. His program generally included a screening of the documentary “Bullied,” followed by a discussion about the lasting impact of bullying and what students can do to change their schools.
Nabozny proved persuasive.
Students, in a series of emails to Nabozny and also in Facebook posts, admitted saying “that’s so gay,” “fag” and “queer” without understanding the harm. They confessed to bullying others and promised to apologize. They also praised the assemblies as the best part of 12 years in school.
Vogel and others with INCLUDE also were impressed.
So impressed, Vogel said, that Nabozny might be returning to Appleton in the 2013-14 school year to talk with staff and perhaps middle school students.
“The message to students,” said Vogel, “is that they have the power to control the culture of a school. They have the power to create an environment that will be inclusive of all. …You can’t sit there and be a bystander.”
Barker carries on son’s work
But more than 15 years after Nabozny’s legal victories, a Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network survey of students found that a hostile climate remained in Wisconsin’s public schools. Eighty percent of LGBT students in Wisconsin said they experienced verbal harassment, 38 percent experienced physical harassment, 92 percent said they felt excluded or ostracized by their peers, and 80 percent said they were the subject of rumors and lies.
Those numbers don’t surprise Darla Barker of Shiocton, whose 17-year-old gay son Cody committed suicide in September 2010. Cody, who had been working to organize a gay-straight alliance at Schiocton High School and attended an LGBT youth group at the Harmony Cafe in Appleton, hung himself in a barn on his family’s farm. He’d been a high school senior for nine days.
“He had a tough time,” his mother said. “He had a lot of pushback in school. And he was such a positive young man. He just wanted to make the world better.”
Darla Barker followed her son’s lead and became a safe schools activist. She’s involved in PFLAG and with the gay-straight alliance her son worked to create.
And Barker is involved in INCLUDE, offering a mother’s reflection on the consequences of anti-gay harassment and bullying in a documentary made for screening in schools.
“INCLUDE, I think it’s great,” Barker said. “It’s important to reach kids, especially the ones out there struggling.”