Newark, NJ—In an effort to promote diversity, tolerance and inclusive learning environments throughout district high schools, Newark Public Schools will be advancing a series of initiatives as part of "Newark Connects LGBTQ Students," which will serve to create programming that celebrates lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning high school students.

The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance Educator project grant recently awarded to the district will contribute to the advancement of LGBTQ initiatives throughout Newark high schools, including professional development, staff supports and resources, guest speakers and inclusive events.

The Southern Poverty Law Center is a nonprofit legal advocacy organization based in Montgomery, AL, focused on the furtherance of civil rights as well as public interest litigation.

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The $6,900 grant comes on the heels of a resolution passed by the district in October that supports school safety and educational opportunities for LGBTQ students and seeks to enforce anti-bullying policies explicitly protecting LGBTQ students.

The resolution protecting Newark's LGBTQ students came just one week before the assault on fourteen-year-old Kylie Perez, a transgender freshman at East Side High School who was attacked by a group of students in the hallway of her school.

The attack prompted calls for increased protections of LGBTQ students by elected and school officials, parents, community leaders and advocacy groups. 

As part of the overall resolution, NPS is currently developing family engagement and support for families of LGBTQ students, provide resources on LGBTQ issues, designate building-level staff familiar with LGBTQ issues, will provide professional development training to teachers, administrators and support staff on issues affecting LGBTQ students and implement LGBTQ—inclusive health education curriculum to students in grades 2-12.

The board is also working with outside LGBTQ advocacy groups in order to set the tone for an inclusive school district.

School Board member Reginald Bledsoe, co-chair of the Program and Instruction Committee and sponsor of the Teaching Tolerance project, said the initiative and subsequent grant will work towards increasing tolerance in the district through student interaction, engagement and education.

“This district initiative will focus on building greater self-awareness for students in the LGBTQ community and provide professional development around LGBTQ sensitive issues for staff in every high school,” Bledsoe said. “To empower students to feel connected, the district will host a district-wide Spring Ball for LGBTQ students and their allies. School leaders will receive professional development from organizations who have expertise in dealing with LGBTQ issues.”

Each school will distribute a "climate survey" and create a planning committee to determine the needs of its school community focusing around LGBTQ students and will be responsible for planning events that create a school environment welcoming to all students.

“The act of connecting LGBTQ youth to other LGBTQ youth can dramatically impact positive identity development, self-confidence and self-worth,” Bledsoe said. “By celebrating LGBTQ pride, schools will increase the inherent worth and dignity of LGBTQ students. Through discussions, education and celebrations we believe that students’ fears and stereotypes will diminish along with the bullying of LGBTQ students.”

According to statistics, LGBTQ teens are two to three times more likely to commit suicide than other youths, with approximately 30 percent of suicides related to sexual identity crisis.

LGBTQ students are five times more likely to miss school because they feel unsafe after being bullied due to their sexual orientation. 

Interim Superintendent of Newark Public Schools Robert Gregory said the district’s Office of Student Supports has generated ideas to better support schools, specifically the LGBTQ population.

“The main goal is that we have an adult in every school to lead a club in that school,” Gregory said. “Kids need advocacy and they need champions. Teaching our kids the importance of diversity is a beautiful thing. We shouldn’t be excluding people.”

Gregory cited the current climate in Washington, DC as part of the impetus in moving the initiative forward.

“The driver was based on the climate in America right now,” he said. “We have to support our students. Our goal is to have buildings that are welcome, no matter race, creed or gender.”

Studies show that LGBTQ students face obstacles including such as hate crimes, violence, social isolation and alienation, which have been shown to lead to higher rates of depression, substance abuse and suicide.

“There is a great need to galvanize LGBTQ students across the district so students feel empowered and connected to a community,” Bledsoe said. “By hosting a district-wide event for the LGBTQ community, it will show the district’s commitment and appreciation of all students. It will help LGBTQ students build a greater sense of self-awareness and start the conversation of accepting others.”

The district is hoping the initiatives will help break stereotypes, reduce bullying incidents and spur conversations that speak specifically to embracing the high school LGBTQ community. 

“All high school students have the potential to benefit from this initiative,” Bledsoe said. “A project like this is important because the district wants to strengthen acceptance by family, friends, and the broader community for our LGBTQ students." 

Newark Public Schools currently serve 8,672 students throughout its 15 high schools.