With the passage of a resolution protecting Newark's LGBTQ students just one week before the vicious assault on a young transgender teen, Newark Public Schools is moving quickly to implement policies explicitly protecting the gay and transgender student community.
Fourteen-year-old Kylie Perez, a transgender freshman at Newark’s East Side High School, was attacked last week by a group of students in the hallway of her school. The attack, which was caught on video, is currently under investigation as an alleged bias crime although no charges have yet been filed.
All students involved have been suspended, with one 17-year-old senior facing criminal charges.
The attack prompted calls for increased protections of LGBTQ students by elected and school officials, parents, community leaders and advocacy groups. A rally was also held by Newark Gay Pride outside of the high school on Monday in support of Perez and the LGBTQ community of students.
The resolution, which supports school safety and educational opportunities for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning students and was passed unanimously by the Schools Advisory Board, seeks to maintain and enforce anti-bullying policies explicitly protecting LGBTQ students, including ensuring transgender students are treated in a manner consistent with their gender identity.
Lillian Richards, Kylie's mom, said that bullying and harassment is nothing new for her daughter.
"It has been going on for a while, but it never escalated to anything like this," Richards said. "I'm just so overwhelmed and so sad."
Richards, who described her daughter as a comedian, dancer and artist, said that Kylie began experiencing harassment as early as the sixth grade.
"That's when the bullying began," she said. "Even though she was still a boy at that time, she dressed up her clothes with a bow tie and things like that and people made fun of her. In seventh grade, Kylie started her transition and started wearing makeup and girls' clothes."
Richards, who has been going through homelessness since January and recently lost her job, said she did not send Kylie to school Tuesday because she feared for her daughter to walk alone to school and that she did not have enough money to send Kylie on the bus.
Despite these challenges, Richards and her daughter are standing strong in the face of unimaginable hardships.
"People from the mayor's office dropped off some food from the food pantry," Richards said, who noted that she was using a hot plate to cook a chicken for dinner. "It'll probably take 30 hours to cook," she said, laughing.
But Richards' main objective is to see schools implement the necessary changes to protect students like Kylie.
"I don't want this to fade away," she said. "I want people to be concerned about kids like Kylie. I want to see some action at the school. I think kids need to be educated about different races and genders way before high school. I feel that if these kids had been educated on bullying, this would not have happened. It's a domino effect."
Board member Reginald Bledsoe, who introduced the initiative, said the issue is one of humanity and justice.
“We must continue to be an inclusive school district that incorporates the concerns of every community,” Bledsoe said. “I feel very passionate about every student knowing there is support for them in the district and that it is our responsibility as a district to ensure all of our students have complete access, support and respect. This is the week of RESPECT, so it is timely that we talk about this issue right now.”
NPS will be 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, implement LGBTQ--inclusive health education curriculum to students in grades 2-12 and work with social studies teachers in grades 7-12 to provide an LGBTQ--inclusive social studies curriculum.
The board will also work actively with outside LGBTQ advocacy groups in order to set the tone for an inclusive school district.
Kylie's experiences are, unfortunately, not uncommon.
A national report cited by the Human Rights Campaign revealed that 26 percent of transgender students were assaulted in school in the past school year because of their gender expression.
A 2015 National School Climate Survey found that LGBTQ students are targeted with physical violence and experience a hostile school environment more frequently than their non-LGBTQ peers and face additional challenges that threaten their health, safety and learning opportunities in schools.
National studies have also found that LGBTQ students are at greater risk of negative emotional, health and educational achievement outcomes, and adverse health and educational consequences for transgender students are even greater than those for LGBTQ students.
In addition, a 2015 Center for Disease Control Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that LGBTQ students who are bullied or experience a hostile or disrespectful environment are more likely to experience depression and anxiety, feel excluded from the school or college community, and experience lower academic achievement and stunted educational aspirations.
Superintendent of Newark Public Schools Christopher Cerf said the district and school board stand with NPS's LGBTQ students and staff, along with the entire Newark Community, in condemning the “heinous and discriminatory” attack last week.
“This is not acceptable behavior under any circumstances and is especially disappointing in light of the resolution passed by the Newark School Board in September in support of Newark’s LGBTQ students, and the long-standing policies supporting tolerance and inclusion as district-wide values,” Cerf said.
“While this case remains under investigation, the district is sharing all available information about actions taking place related to this incident and to prevent bullying in schools more broadly," Cerf said. "In addition, we are participating in a number of programs this month, as part of Anti-Bullying month in our schools and look forward to continuing our work in this area year-round.”
Bledsoe said the although resolution calls for implementation in 2018-2019, the board is exploring ways to incorporate it this year.
“The resolution calls for an advocate, a go-to person to ensure we are being an inclusive school district,” he said. “Some of our work right now includes professional development for teachers and administrators. In fact, East Side High School will be undertaking that training soon. We will also explore how we can incorporate learning equality and tolerance acceptance even more.”
Speaking on the heels of the attack on Perez, Bledsoe says that education and tolerance are more important than ever.
“I know this resolution will move us forward as a school district and as a city,” he said. “I encourage and hope other school districts, throughout New Jersey and the nation, will create a similar resolution, if one does not currently exist. I am committed to making our school district the focus of one humanity.”
Newark Mayor Ras Baraka condemned the attack and stated the need for continued vigilance.
“I join the LGBTQI community, as well as the parents, students, and citizens of Newark who are appalled by the recent bullying and vicious attack on fourteen-year-old Kylie Perez, a transgender student, at East Side High School,” Baraka said in a statement.
“We must remain vigilant as a community and continue to denounce and to prosecute the hate crimes that are perpetrated upon members of the LGBTQI community," Baraka said. "This act was particularly egregious because the victim is a young teen whose attackers assailed her without warning.”
The mayor reiterated the need for LGBTQ protections in Newark schools.
“This incident reinforces the importance of the role of our schools in educating students about the need to respect each other’s rights regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation,” he said. “I have met with Ms. Perez and her family as well as members of the LGBTQI community to continue to find ways to protect their rights and well-being.”
Community activist and LGBTQ advocate Munirah Bomani, who also organized the rally in support of Kylie, said that Newark suffers from a lack of resources, funding and sensitivity training for its LGBTQ community.
"The fact of the matter is, there are no LGBTQI commission meetings, no community outreach in each ward and no resources available to our LGBTQI community," Bomani said. "The LGBTQI groups in Newark have no cohesiveness."
Bomani also claims that the city has cut funding allocated to the LGBTQI center.
"The LGBTQI is on life support and is in need of funding for resources," she said.
Richards said that she is now taking extra precautions when it comes to Kylie's safety.
"The first few weeks, someone will be watching her," she said. "Kylie won't see us but we'll be watching. I've also told her to take different routes from school."
Richards said that Newark police officers have been reaching out and have provided her with their phone numbers.
"I met police officers at the rally and they said if I need any help, I should call them," she said. "The Newark police have been very compassionate. Those little things, they touch you."
For now, said Richards, she will be focusing on caring for her family.
"I'm going to focus on taking care of Kylie," she said. "This can happen to any kid--black, white, orange. Some teachers have called and were so surprised that people would do this to Kylie. This needs to be put out there. My baby is beautiful. I always said to her, "Don't worry about what people think, just be yourself."