EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Victoria Benavides - GSA
Victoria Benavides is the Central Valley Program Coordinator for GSA Network . I sat down with her at the Fresno LGBT Community Center to talk about the state of GSA's in the Central Valley, the upcoming ENS Conference and how students facing harassment or discrimination at their schools can use available tools to report and control safety issues on their campuses.
A Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) is a student-run club, typically in a high school or middle school, which provides a safe place for students to meet, support each other, talk about issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity and expression, and work to end homophobia and transphobia.
CHRIS JARVIS: How many GSA's are there in the Central Valley?
VICTORIA BENAVIDES: We have over 60 in the Central Valley, in the region from Stockton down to, right before Bakersfield. I would like to encourage our Central Valley GSA's to not only become more active, but to also register their groups at GSA Network, on a yearly basis. Some signed up initially but haven't checked back in and we don't know and can't send out the appropriate resources if we don't know if they exist anymore. Some of our GSA's have never re-registered since they started some 10 years ago. So we ask that they update contact information in order to continue receiving resources.
CJ: And for schools without GSA's that want to start one, how do they do that?
VB: Yes, visit GSA Network - Start A GSA (www.gsanetwork.org) and there's a whole kit on how to start up a GSA. There's a ten step process to starting up a GSA.
CJ: Expression Not Suppression is coming up on March 24th. Tell us about that event.
VB: Expression Not Suppression is a conference that's happened here in the Valley for about 8 years. It's an opportunity for students who are LGBTQQI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning and Intersex) to come to a place not only with people similar to them but also strong allies to learn about creating safe communities and safe schools.
CJ: How do the kids get there?
VB: We're hoping to get all the information out by the end of January so that accommodations can be made for transportation. Schools do have the opportunity to make this a field trip, and some schools do car pooling. We also want to do the groundwork with some local organizations to create car pooling for the students. In all of those instances the students will either need permission slips for a field trip or a simple permission slip from their parents to attend a community event.
ENS has evolved from a specifically GSA Networks to a partnership with organizations like Community Link. It was just too hard with the workload of GSA Central Valley Coordinators to get to the kind of attendance we want, which is around 200, without a major partnership. So Community Link became a strong partner around the time Robin McGeHee was a part of GSA. GSA is taking a little bit more of the forefront for the planning, while Community Link will be helping us with lot of things like donations for breakfast, etc.
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CJ: What's different this year?
VB: During lunch we'll have a nonprofit Community Fair, which we might call Activist Walk this year.
CJ: So that time frame would be open to local groups to participate via tabling?
VB: Yes. We'd like interested organizations to be there during that time, but also maybe have different representatives available throughout the day, as people are moving between workshops, etc. I realize that asking any organization to be there for 8 hours is a lot to ask from any organization, but maybe switching people up every couple of hours so that someone is there at the table.
CJ: What about the structure of ENS? What happens during the day?
VB: The conference runs from 9AM-9PM at The Big Red Church, the First Congregational Church of Fresno. We start with a free breakfast, then a keynote speaker and then a talk about how to proceed through the conference.
CJ: So kids don't have to decide ahead of time which workshops to attend during the day? They can decide right then and there.
VB: Right. The only pre-registration is online reservation for the event. There's a section for name information, as well as if you're under 18 and wish to be photographed during the event then you'll need a parental permission slip. That doesn't mean you can't come and fully participate if you don't want to be photographed, it just means we'll somehow signify during the event that you choose not to be photographed. So students need to realize that we're there to keep them safe and if they don't want to be photographed, we won't allow it, but it doesn't change participation in the day's events. So after the introduction we have several workshops to choose from, then lunch, more workshops and the day ends with a drag show and a dance, which goes from around 7PM-9PM.
CJ: And you're looking for organizations that are willing to host workshops throughout the day?
VB: Yes, we'll have a form out shortly that will outline exactly what time frame you're interested in, there are different workshop sessions, and what would you like to present, what's the main idea, why do you think it's youth friendly and would you be interested in partnering with youth to teach it. Right now we're developing the youth planning team, because we think that having one of the youth present the workshop with you will have the most effect rather than adults just coming in and teaching.
CJ: Is there a theme?
VB: This year we're using the theme of "Sharing Your Stories"and focusing on SB 48 - The FAIR Education Act , and that was because a lot of the youth were really excited about the idea of how this can be a ground breaking experience for youth still in school. If they're learning more accurate information about LGBT and disabled people, then their schools may become more tolerant and safer because their communities are being spoken about and they have a history.
(Courtesy Wikipedia.org...Fair, Accurate, Inclusive, and Respectful Education Act, also known as the FAIR Education Act (Senate Bill 48) and informally described by media outlets as the LGBT History Bill, is a California law which compels the inclusion of the political, economic, and social contributions of persons with disabilities and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people into educational textbooks and the social studies curricula in California public schools by amending the California Education Code. It also revises the previous designation of "black Americans, American Indians, Mexicans, Asians, [and] Pacific Island people" in that list into "Native Americans, African Americans, Mexican Americans, Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, and European Americans". It would also amend an existing law by adding sexual orientation and religion into a list of characteristics (which already includes race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, and disability) that schools are prohibited from sponsoring negative activities about or teaching students about in an adverse way.)
CJ: How will SB 48 be implemented?
VB: That's decided on a local level, but it is mandatory as of January 1st. A lot of schools are looking at incorporating the FAIR Education Act requirements into US History and Social Studies. For instance it might be in some schools that when they discuss the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950's and 1960's that they'll discuss the Stonewall Riots. Also when discussing the Women's Movement, to discuss how that correlates to the Equal Rights Movement.
CJ: Where do they get their curriculum?
VB: There are a lot of resources being developed. It's still under construction, it's happening all over the state. GSA Networks is working on developing a whole manual, with suggested readings and curriculum that could be adopted. And we're getting a lot of questions from school districts, like, "Can you just tell me what to teach?"
CJ: So basically the FAIR Education Act is a general directive without being specific?
VB: It's mandatory, but it's not defined how to do it. It's designed to leave it up to the local schools. The state is working with places like GSA to come up with a fact sheet, describing what they have to do. For instance if a student brings up someone in history they've heard might have been gay, the teacher can't just dismiss it, they have to discuss it.
CJ: But if there's no book to teach from, isn't is possible that some schools might try to just go about teaching history the same way they always have and might even skirt the issue unless a question comes up?
VB: I think some schools are going to try, but they will lose funding if they don't comply with this. GSA is creating a FAIR and UNFAIR page on our website, specifically for youth and advisors or anyone to go on and report if they think they're school is teaching fairly or not, so that we have these kinds of reports ready when the California Department of Education starts any investigations.
CJ: And how do we react to parents who are against this because they think it's about teaching about sex?
VB: Because this does not create a requirement to teach about these things in sex ed or health ed courses. It's a completely different education code that requires in those classes to teach about things like HIV and STD's. This specific code, SB 48, is targeting Social Sciences and looking at the way history and sociology are being taught to our youth. It's not about the details of sexuality or how to interact with your partner. It's nothing like that. Parents who have an issue with the teachings in sexual health, they have the opportunity to opt their kids out of those classes. But the reality is, you want your child, no matter what age they are, what sexual orientation they are, what background they come from to be equipped with the skills needed to protect themselves when they're ready, plain and simple.
CJ: Let's talk about bullying. I've had calls here at the Community Center from parents reporting bullying of their kids and the schools don't seem to have a bullying policy in place to deal with it. What are the requirements for that?
VB: The Education Code, which is like the Constitution for the public school system here in California, has specific codes that are addressing harassment and discrimination, and within those are typically idea of bullying policies. Seth's law was trying to be even more specific to those things. These codes explain what's required of administration and parents to create a safe environment for students.
(Courtesy EQCA...Although California has adopted anti-bullying legislation, LGBT youth are still subject to harassment, intimidation and bullying. Seth’s Law tightens anti-bullying policies in California schools by ensuring that all schools have clear and consistent policies and by establishing timelines for investigating claims of bullying. AB 9 will help create a respectful and safe environment for all students.)
VB: All students are required and have the right to fully participate in any education process without feeling discriminated against or harassed on the basis of sexual orientation, race, creed, gender expression or any characteristic, physical or not. These requirements have been in effect since 2000 and have been revamped over the years. So schools are now in the process of building their own anti-bullying policies, but they understand they have to follow the Education Code. One thing that GSA is trying to push is that Harassment & Discrimination policies for each school should be publically noted at the schools so the students and staff know what the expectations are.
CJ: I agree. Some of the things I hear from people calling is that the parent went to one teacher and they didn't know the policy, so they went to another administrator and they didn't know what the policy was, and so on.
VB: And that leads to wonderful opportunities for GSA's to make coalitions with their administration here in the Valley to start publicizing the policies. Schools have to have one. So if it's not on the school website or the district website, where is it and how can we help you, as GSA, to personally deliver these policies to every teacher? What I really want to work on with GSA's is that before you do visibility campaigns, we need to build this foundation of what does harassment and discrimination mean in our schools? It's important for GSA's to be part of that work, so that they build those partnerships with administrations. That allows for the potential to keep collaborating. So while schools work at creating anti bullying policies, we need to really pay attention and go back to Harassment & Discrimination Policies already in the Education Code.
CJ: So it might be helpful if we, as an LGBT Community, think more about integrating anti bullying into the general Harassment & Discrimination Code?
VB: Right, I don't think it's separate. And what we see now is a total anti tolerance of bullying, meaning you're immediately expelled. Is that going to help the student body? Kicking students out of school, is that going to address the problem?
CJ: Right, there should be a process rather than immediate expulsion.
VB: Yeah, there has to be a process. In reality, in the Valley, working with youth, the most LGBTQ youth that are out and eager to work with GSA, that I've worked with, are students of color. And that's a testament to the fact that if we have so many youth of color who are loud and out, we have to recognize that there's a high percentage of youth of color, who are the student who are being expelled. Because a lot of anti bullying policies equal repercussions for both sides, so those students who are speaking up about being bullied are also victims of expulsion.
CJ: So what about reporting? How does a student who feels they are a victim of harassment or discrimination go about reporting it?
VB: Let's remember that for most schools, any bullying policy is incorporated into the Harassment & Discrimination Policy. The most important thing for the student is to remember to write everything down that happened. The date, the time, who was there, names if you have them, if not, what were they wearing, what actions happened, what people said. Write down anything they can possibly remember, as soon as possible, even if they're not sure yet they want to go through with the complaint process.
CJ: One of the parents who called me said her daughter didn't know the names of those harassing her. What does she do then?
VB: Descriptions. What they looked like, if they knew your name, anything at all that will help you remember and identify them later.
CJ: What's your advice about recording an incident with a cell phone?
VB: That's a possibility. Any way to document what happened to them. If other youth are watching and took pictures, then ask for those pictures. But you also don't want to put a youth in a situation where they're so intent on documenting the event that they put themselves in even more danger.
CJ: So the best tactic may be to focus on what's happening and write it down afterwards.
VB: Yes. Write it down as soon as possible, when it's very raw. It's important to write down how it made you feel, which is what harassment and discrimination is talking about. It's not always physical acts, it can be verbal.
CJ: What about school forms?
VB: It's important to fill out the Uniform Complaint Procedure Form. It's important to ask your school for theirs. There's also a copy on our website which has been looked over by the California Department of Education.
CJ: Is it called the same thing at every school?
VB: No, it could be just Complaint Form or Incident Report. So when they fill out the form, attach their original written description. We recognize that not all youth are ready to identify themselves as victims of harassment, so it can be filled out anonymously or somebody else can fill it out for you.
CJ: How does the school deal with it if it's anonymous?
VB: That can make it difficult in procedure and the school being held accountable. So in the section that asks what do you think the next steps should be, the person submitting it anonymously should be very articulate in what they want done. For instance, I want a letter to be given to so and so.
CJ: So even the follow up can by anonymous, in that the school will then contact the perpetrator without revealing the identity or possibly the sexual orientation of the victim.
VB: Right. The school is required by state law not to "out" students. That's a whole other protection, part of the privacy act, which is part of the education code. Also, you don't have to be person who's harassed, but if you witness an incident, you have the right to fill out a report as well.
CJ: What do the students do to follow up?
VB: When you turn it into the school, it's really important to that you have it post dated, that it was received by your school, with the date, the time and signature, and keep a copy for your records. It's important to have a copy because there are specific time frames that complaints have to be responded to. So if you see nothing is happening you can go back with your copy and say, I filed this complaint and there hasn't been a response. And once there's a response, if you're not happy with it, you can appeal it.
CJ: And if nothing is done?
VB: Keep filing complaints. And if you're a victim again, file again and again. Keep copies and stay on top of it. Remember that you're not only trying to make a situation better for yourself, but for the whole community.
CJ: What about students dealing with gender expression and finding themselves in discriminated situations in school?
VB: We've had some issues here with students choosing to express themselves through what they choose to wear, but the reality is that the Harassment & Discrimination Policy in the Education Code also protects gender expression. California is one of the only states that protects gender expression.