Safe Schools Program Celebrates a Record Year

Students at I.S. 289 have one question after another for PFLAG mom, Johanna Antar

The 2013-2014 school year in New York City wraps up on June 26, and this year PFLAG NYC was busy bringing the Safe Schools Program into schools right up to the end. Our last school engagement of the year was to the 7th Grade at I.S. 289 in Manhattan. Talk about going out with a bang: we had our biggest single team for the year at that one event — 13 people. And the event capped off the most successful year yet for the Safe Schools Program: we made 30 school visits and reached over 4,600 students.

The Safe Schools Program is now PFLAG NYC’s most far-reaching activity, sending teams of speakers into classrooms all around the city to teach respect and create safe learning environments for all students, including those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning (LGBTQ).

The Safe Schools speakers are all volunteers — either parents, other relatives or straight allies, as well as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people of all ages. These volunteers share with students their personal stories about learning to accept themselves or their child for who they are. The school visits create a safe space for students to ask questions, and hear a perspective many of them were never introduced to.

Volunteer speakers and the principals, counselors, and teachers at the Safe Schools partner schools are the heart of this program, and this year we brought the two groups together to celebrate this year’s accomplishments with an End-of-School Party on June 10. Everyone greeted each other with smiles and hugs as they gathered at Therapy Bar & Lounge in Manhattan. When PFLAG’s volunteers speak in schools, there is little time to make conversation with school partners, so it was a welcome change to have time for a warm and friendly social gathering. Even some volunteers who had started out shy at the Safe Schools Speaker Training Session at the beginning of the year seemed to come out of their shells after speaking at a few Safe Schools events.

Denise Atherley Speaks with Students at the High School for Law and Public Service

The principals and teachers who attended, such as John Curry, Principal of Community Action School, and Zulema Guajardo, an English teacher at Pelham Lab High School, remembered the faces and personal stories of the volunteers who visited their schools. It showed the power of a personal story to make a lasting impression, which is one of the bedrock principles of the program.

The highlight of the evening was the presentation of awards to both volunteers and school partners. Drew Tagliabue, PFLAG NYC’s executive director, and Suzanne Ramos, its board chair, welcomed and thanked everyone for attending the party. Everyone there had made important contributions to helping the program become so strong, but a few people were singled out for showing special leadership or having memorable moments throughout the year.

Safe Schools volunteer, Susan Goodman, speaks at her 14th event of the 2013-2014 school year

After just one year in the program, PFLAG mom Susan Goodman humbly accepted the award for Most Visits in a School Year, having spoken 14 times this year. Susan was able to jump into the program quickly since as a songwriter she regular does musical programs to help schools fight bullying through her business, Stand Up! Speak Out!. Jim Tierney, an English teacher from Paula Hedbavny School, was recognized for being the Biggest Safe School Booster for having recommended the program to the most new schools and opening doors for us. Volunteer David Lally laughed in good humor after receiving his award for Most “Hip” Presentation. In his professional life, David is a screenwriter for some major television shows and he always impresses students with his deep knowledge of plot lines from Entourage, Twilight, Orange is the New Black, and other TV shows.

PFLAG NYC also used the party to recruit new people to the Safe Schools Program. Both potential volunteers and school officials came to find out more about what the program does. It was a wonderful opportunity to network. Towards the end of the evening, when our reserved space was reopened to general bar patrons, one man approached one of the volunteers, Diane Coughlin, who also happens to be the chairperson of the Safe Schools Program. He said he was a counselor at Brooklyn Tech High School and just happened upon our event. A chance encounter that will lead to yet more school visits for the Safe Schools Program next fall!

As the night drew to a close, a few volunteers shared their opinions of how the Safe Schools Program was doing overall. Charlie Trotman said “I think this program needs to be nationwide. To speak to students about my trials as well as my triumphs makes me feel like I am really making a difference. It gives me hope for the safety of a lot of students today.” Many PFLAG parents shared the same sentiment: They wished there was a program like this when they were in school, or when their children were in middle and high school.

In accepting an award as a new school this year, Jason Wagner, the principal of Pelham Lab High School, said “Our experience was great and we look forward to expanding this partnership and bringing you to our school every year!”

PFLAG NYC looks forward to holding Jason to his word and expanding the Safe Schools Program to yet more students starting in September! For more information on how to bring the Safe Schools Program to your school, visit the program’s webpage.