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L.A. Unified partners with gay advocates to end bullying

The initiative, called Project SPIN, seeks to help gay, lesbian and transgender students deal with bullies, and more broadly, to change the district's culture.

October 18, 2012|By Marisa Gerber, Los Angeles Times

For Elliott Sitz, fifth grade was a bully-plagued blur.

One day his elementary school classmates' taunts focused on his long brown hair, the next on his friends, all of them female.

"They would say, 'Oh, are you gay?' " Sitz, now a junior at Downtown Magnets High School, recalled. "It would happen every single day, all day long."

By middle school, hallway shoves and a barrage of gay epithets became the norm. He dreaded school.

For students such as Elliott, a newly forged partnership between the Los Angeles Unified School District and the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center, among others, seeks to change the district's culture and attempts to eliminate bullying. The groups got together after a cluster of gay teenagers nationwide committed suicide after being bullied.

Project SPIN, which stands for Suicide Prevention Intervention Now, was officially launched Wednesday at a news conference at the Miguel Contreras Learning Complex.

Board of Education President Monica Garcia hugged Lorri Jean, chief executive of the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center, saying the two groups have worked hard to help Los Angeles' gay, lesbian and transgender youth.

The two met a couple of years ago after Jean, appalled by the student deaths, reached out to Garcia.

"The school district had a long history of helping these youth," Jean said. "But we knew even more could be done."

Garcia agreed.

The district spent the last two years working with and learning from the gay and lesbian center.

"We have spotlighted these issues," Garcia said. "We have brought it up a notch."

Training is one of the program's biggest efforts. About 3,700 people within the district — teachers, administrators, students and parents — have received training in such matters as suicide prevention and how to create a safe classroom climate. Sometimes, the sessions' goals are as seemingly simple as becoming more comfortable with the word gay.

Project staff also get involved in campus situations.

A tussle broke out at a district school recently, for example, and a gay student, the target of the fight, was expelled along with the rest of the group, according to Sara Train, Project SPIN coordinator.

"We jumped in and said, 'You cannot expel the victim here,' " Train said.

This isn't the district's first foray into these issues.

In 1984, Virginia Uribe, a science teacher at Fairfax High School, started Project 10 — named for the percentage of the population some believe to be homosexual.

Then in 2005, the district became the nation's first to adopt a high school health textbook with a chapter covering lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues. And last year, a state law required school districts to use textbooks and lessons that highlight contributions from those groups.

Judy Chiasson of L.A. Unified's Human Relations, Diversity and Equity Office said the new program sends the district's long-standing message of acceptance, but in a louder voice.

"It's a bigger statement," Chiasson said. "These two huge leaders from different sectors are saying, 'We're here for you and we believe in you.' "

For Teresa Sitz, Elliott's mother, the district was her backbone.

"Beyond just helping us get through it, we got eased into becoming advocates," she said. "It gave us power to reach out and help people, which I thought was really brilliant."

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