White House Bullying Conference Urges Action

[Shannon Cuttle is an educator, school administrator, safe schools advocate and trainer, community organizer, and policy wonk.]

President Obama and the First Lady unveiled the administration’s new plan to help stop bullying in schools nationwide Thursday at the White House Bullying Conference.

About 150 participants, ranging from teachers, professors, parents, community members, organizations, and students took part in the conference at the White House to discuss the bullying crisis.

In remarks to participants from the East Room of the White House, President Obama and the First Lady spoke to the need for communities and schools to work together and take action to combat bullying and harassment and also of the struggles faced by students and families who have suffered and endured challenges. Said the President:

A third of middle school and high school students have reported being bullied during the school year. Almost 3 million students have said they were pushed, shoved, tripped, even spit on. It’s also more likely to affect kids that are seen as different, whether it’s because of the color of their skin, the clothes they wear, the disability they may have, or sexual orientation.

New initiatives from Facebook and MTV were also announced along with the launch of a new resource from the Federal government called Stop Bullying.

As participants broke out into small group sessions to discuss issues related to bullying in schools, one family in attendance spoke of their loss and renewed spirit to fight back against bullying and harassment in schools.

Kirk Smalley and his wife lost their 11-year-old son Ty Field last May when he took his own life after repeatedly being bullying and harassment at school and online by his peers. The sixth grader from Oklahoma had, according to his parents, spoken to his teachers about the bullying but they did not take him seriously. Kirk also says that his wife tried several times to speak with school officials but was met with little assistance. They now speak out against bullying ans harassment and the need for creating safe schools in Oklahoma and around the country.

In an emotional speech to participants, Kirk Smalley said, “These are not statistics or numbers; these are our babies. I cannot begin to tell you with what urgency we need to attack this issue.”

Kirk Smalley and his wife were among four groups of parents with children who had taken their own lives due to bullying and harassment in attendance at the conference. Their presence was a reminder of what bullying and harassment does not only to a youth but also to a family and a community that was both heart-breaking and inspiring.

Mr. Frost, an Elementary School teacher from Arlington, Virgina who attend the conference and was a guest of President Obama, said that in order to combat bullying we need to get back to community schools. He says that he sees challenges daily but the the key is to teach students to respect each other and themselves.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan gave closing remarks at the end of the day summing up why we need inclusive safe schools and policy:

We need to have a fundamental cultural shift in our schools and communities. We all have an obligation to make our schools safer for all students. No school can be a good school until they are a safe school.

The Department of Education also announced that on the Federal level they would be creating a task force on bullying and a new reporting system that would gather vital statistics on what is happening across the country on this issue. Sec. Duncan also said the Department of Education was committed to making sure that schools and communities had the tools they needed to take action.

But as we move forward talking about bullying and harassment we must make sure to include all youth directly in the discussions on best practices. We must have honest dialog within our local communities and schools about what is going on and especially about what is not working.

It will take all of us to break down the barriers that exist in this debate and create a level playing field—one where all students, all educators, and all families have a voice in creating safe schools and safe spaces. There is not one perfect plan of action to solve this epidemic that effects PreK–College students but a good start is empowering students and care-givers in self-advocacy and support against intolerance.

Yesterday, a memorial service was held for 13-year-old Nicholas Kelo, Jr. of Rittman, OH. The middle school student took his own life after being bullied for joining high school band and was taunted for his perceived sexual orientation. Kelo’s death by suicide is just the latest of countless examples of a problem in our schools that continues to go uninterrupted.

We need to stand up and speakOUT now. This is a crisis in all of our communities and schools nationwide.

Take action and tell your Congress member today to support the Student Non-Discrimination Act (SNDA) and the Safe Schools Improvement Act (SSIA) for inclusive safe schools.



“Born This Way” Makes It Better… But For Whom?

[Shannon Cuttle is an educator, school administrator, safe schools advocate and trainer, community organizer, and policy wonk.]

So today is a big day for little “Monsters” everywhere (otherwise known as Lady Gaga fans).

If you have not already noticed by now in your news, Twitter, Facebook, and other feeds, Lady Gaga has dropped her highly anticipated new single called “Born This Way” today from her upcoming new album (available in May). Hype of the song release has been everywhere for weeks building up in anticipation for today.

Lady Gaga, who has been viewed as a vocal LGBT supporter, said in her recent VOGUE interview that, “I wrote [“Born This Way”] in ten fucking minutes, and it is a completely magical message song. And after I wrote it, the gates just opened, and the songs kept coming. It was like an immaculate conception.”

Having admitted this past October that she was bullied in school as a youth, she is now selling and marketing her new single about bullying to the LGBT community as an “anthem” and a “timely piece”.

But, an anthem and timely piece for whom?

Lady Gaga has signed an exclusive deal with Target for pre-order sales of her new album that also features an extended album with additional tracks only available at Target, with free download of the much-hyped song “Born This Way” as purchase incentive.

As you may recall, this past summer Target was caught donating funds to anti-LGBT candidates and the LGBT community responded with a boycott of the retailer that is still largely in effect.

Lady Gaga, who last year made headlines at the MTV video music awards by speaking out for the repeal of Dont Ask Dont Tell, is now in an exclusive contract with Target, who has made anti-LGBT contributions?

Forbes has estimated that Lady Gaga, with a new album, tour, and marketing in 2011, could make as much as an estimated $100 million dollars. An estimated $30 million is expected to come in just from potential sales of “Born This Way.” In 2010, she was ranked as the seventh highest grossing artist just behind Jay-Z.

Is it all about the Benjamins?

Lady Gaga stands to make herself the top grossing musician this year with her anti-bullying anthem benefiting in the wake of the recent tragedies this past Fall.

The LGBT community should also have concerns about her use of “transgendered,” a grammatically incorrect form of the word “transgender” that is often used by opponents of equality to conditionalize transgender identities.

Similarly, Hispanic and Latino groups are also criticizing Lady Gaga‘s use of the terms “chola” and “orient.”

Organizations like Chicanos Unidos Arizona and MEChA do not like Lady Gaga’s use of the words ‘Chola’ and ‘Orient’ in her lyrics, viewing both as being racist and derogatory.

The word chola according to the critics refers to Latina girls in gangs, Latinas from the barrio who have a certain look about them and conjure very negative stereotypes.  Lady Gaga use of this term in the song is sure to promote already negative Hispanic stereotypes, according to these organizations.

Is she making it better?

The selling and marketing around bullying is a hot topic these days, with promotions and products that are aimed at the LGBT community and other marginalized groups. Using tragedy for profit instead of awareness is not the way to remember those who have been lost or who are still struggling with bullying and harassment.

If Lady Gaga wanted to make a song to empower the LGBT community and youth everywhere, why is she marketing the theme of bullying to sell units to her masses? Why not make “Born This Way” a FREE download or donate the sales of the song to inclusive organizations or charites that work to assist youth?

Instead, Lady Gaga seems to be only making it better for herself in a most timely—or rather untimely—of fashions.

Take a listen and make your own decision:

BORN THIS WAY
Written by: Lady Gaga

INTRO:
It doesn’t matter if you love him, or capital H-I-M
Just put your paws up
’cause you were Born This Way, Baby

VERSE:
MY MAMA TOLD ME WHEN I WAS YOUNG
WE ARE ALL BORN SUPERSTARS

SHE ROLLED MY HAIR AND PUT MY LIPSTICK ON
IN THE GLASS OF HER BOUDOIR

“THERE’S NOTHIN WRONG WITH LOVIN WHO YOU ARE”
SHE SAID, “‘CAUSE HE MADE YOU PERFECT, BABE”

“SO HOLD YOUR HEAD UP GIRL AND YOU’LL GO FAR,
LISTEN TO ME WHEN I SAY”

CHORUS:
I’M BEAUTIFUL IN MY WAY
‘CAUSE GOD MAKES NO MISTAKES
I’M ON THE RIGHT TRACK BABY
I WAS BORN THIS WAY

DON’T HIDE YOURSELF IN REGRET
JUST LOVE YOURSELF AND YOU’RE SET
I’M ON THE RIGHT TRACK BABY
I WAS BORN THIS WAY

POST-CHORUS:
OOO THERE AIN’T NO OTHER WAY
BABY I WAS BORN THIS WAY
BABY I WAS BORN THIS WAY
OOO THERE AIN’T NO OTHER WAY
BABY I WAS BORN-
I’M ON THE RIGHT TRACK BABY
I WAS BORN THIS WAY

DON’T BE A DRAG -JUST BE A QUEEN
DON’T BE A DRAG -JUST BE A QUEEN
DON’T BE A DRAG -JUST BE A QUEEN
DON’T BE!

VERSE:
GIVE YOURSELF PRUDENCE
AND LOVE YOUR FRIENDS
SUBWAY KID, REJOICE YOUR TRUTH

IN THE RELIGION OF THE INSECURE
I MUST BE MYSELF, RESPECT MY YOUTH

A DIFFERENT LOVER IS NOT A SIN
BELIEVE CAPITAL H-I-M (HEY HEY HEY)
I LOVE MY LIFE I LOVE THIS RECORD AND
MI AMORE VOLE FE YAH (LOVE NEEDS FAITH)

REPEAT CHORUS + POST-CHORUS

BRIDGE:

DON’T BE A DRAG, JUST BE A QUEEN
WHETHER YOU’RE BROKE OR EVERGREEN
YOU’RE BLACK, WHITE, BEIGE, CHOLA DESCENT
YOU’RE LEBANESE, YOU’RE ORIENT
WHETHER LIFE’S DISABILITIES
LEFT YOU OUTCAST, BULLIED, OR TEASED
REJOICE AND LOVE YOURSELF TODAY
‘CAUSE BABY YOU WERE BORN THIS WAY

NO MATTER GAY, STRAIGHT, OR BI,
LESBIAN, TRANSGENDERED LIFE
I’M ON THE RIGHT TRACK BABY
I WAS BORN TO SURVIVE
NO MATTER BLACK, WHITE OR BEIGE
CHOLA OR ORIENT MADE
I’M ON THE RIGHT TRACK BABY
I WAS BORN TO BE BRAVE

REPEAT CHORUS

OUTRO/REFRAIN:

I WAS BORN THIS WAY HEY!
I WAS BORN THIS WAY HEY!
I’M ON THE RIGHT TRACK BABY
I WAS BORN THIS WAY HEY!

I WAS BORN THIS WAY HEY!
I WAS BORN THIS WAY HEY!
I’M ON THE RIGHT TRACK BABY
I WAS BORN THIS WAY HEY!



100th Day of School: A Student’s Perspective on Bullying

Today marks the ceremonial 100th day of school for students across the United States. It’s an important day to mark the ongoing culture of bullying and harassment that persists for young people who are perceived to be LGBT in our schools and universities. In solidarity with the Safe Schools Action Network, I’m pleased to share with you the testimony of one young person who has been the victim of bullying.

The following was written by a student at the Catholic University of America.

Late one night during my sophomore year, here at CUA, I was asleep in my dorm room in Ryan.  It was probably around 3:00 AM when I awoke to several loud bangs on my door.  I heard several voices out in the hallway, all male, and they were all laughing and talking about me.  They yelled, “Yo, come out here faggot!”

I continued to lie in my bed; my heart was racing, and I didn’t know what to do.  Another male then said, “Yo, get the fuck out here faggot so I can beat the shit out of you!”  I glanced across the room to my roommate’s bed to see if he had woken up, but it seemed he hadn’t.

The group in the hallway continued to bang on the door as hard and as much as they could.  The hinges on the door were rattling and I was afraid that given the force with which they were hitting the door, the door itself would break at any given moment.

Then, the banging stopped and the voices were reduced to light giggling and laughter.  It was at this point that I could hear the guys outside my room writing on the whiteboard outside my door.  After a few minutes they began to bang on the door some more, screaming for me to come out there to see them, then the voices died down and then finally there were no more sounds in the hallway.

I was breathing rapidly, and it was only after ten minutes that I had the courage to get out of my bed to go over to the door.  I looked through the peephole and saw that no one was outside.  I opened the door and looked at my whiteboard and written all across it were profanities regarding my sexuality along with vulgar images of penises.

I called DPS and they responded and I filed a report, but nothing ever came of it.  I lived two doors down from one of my two RAs, yet neither he nor the other one responded that night.  Neither of my RAs were around that night, and as such, there was no one who could have responded right away to help me.  I felt as though I couldn’t talk to anyone about it, except for close friends, and that there was no one who could legitimately sympathize with me.

That night, I felt entirely alone.



Left Behind in 2010

[Shannon Cuttle is an educator, school administrator, safe schools advocate and trainer, community organizer, and policy wonk.]

This year will go down in history as full equality became one step closer for millions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender adult community members.  From the historic Don’t Ask Don’t Tell Repeal Act of 2010, which will eventually allow openly lesbian, gay, and bisexual servicemembers to serve,  to full marriage equality in Washington D.C., to victories such as hospital visitation mandates for LGBT families nationally.

One of the biggest under-reported stories of 2010 affects a population who mostly cannot yet legally vote nor make a donation to a campaign or an organization, and most of whom still depend on an adult to look out for their best interests and in some cases save their lives:

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and gender non-conforming youth and allies.

In 2010 we saw bullying and harassment in schools and communities in Washington, D.C, Texas,  Georgia, Indiana, Ohio, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Massachusetts,  Colorado,  Virginia, Florida, New York, Michigan, Utah, Arizona, Mississippi, Montana, Illinois, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Alaska, Louisiana, Idaho, Connecticut and California, and those were just the stories that we heard about.

In more than half of the United States of America in 2010, youth experienced bullying and harassment.

In 2010, we lost over 20 youth due to reported suicide from bullying and harassment. Keep in mind: those are only the reported cases. Across the nation, we were heartbroken and shocked to learn about many suicides due to bullying harassment, including Seth Walsh, Tyler Clementi, Phoebe Prince, Chloe Lacey, and others. The youngest student that attempted to take hir life from severe bullying and harassment at school was just six years old. Not every story made the news.

This year we also saw student heroes like Will Phillips, Constance McMillen, Ceara Sturgis, Paige Rawl, Graeme Taylor, Derrick Martin stand up and fight back after serve bullying and harassment at school. There are countless other youth whose stories have yet to be told about their struggle, strength, courage, and pain facing bullying and harassment in schools, colleges, and universities.  Over 150,000 students miss school each day due to bullying and harassment. And 9 out 10 LGBT youth experience bullying and harassment—especially given the advent of  Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking sites. According to GLSEN, 40% of all youth who have access to a computer have experienced cyber bullying.

Youth in 2010 have faced not just bullying and harassment, but homelessness as well.  Up to 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBT and are struggling for food and shelter across this nation. Most of these homeless youth were thrown out of their homes or disowned by their families, left on the streets because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

And even progressive advances such as the DADT Repeal Act of 2010 still do not address creating safe spaces for lesbian and gay youth in JROTC, young adults in ROTC, or cadets in our nation’s schools, colleges, and universities.

How are we truly providing high quality education if we are not providing inclusive safe schools?

In 2011 we must fight together to make safe schools a priority so that all youth—regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity (actual or perceived), socioeconomic status, disability or impairment , religion, immigration status, race, national origin, HIV/AIDS status, or any other identity—are free from bullying, harassment and discrimination.

What can you do?

Join the movement for safe schools in your local communities and stand up to bullying and harassment when you hear it, see it and take action. Help create inclusive safe spaces and anti-bullying and harassment polices on a local, state-wide, and federal level such as the Student Non-Discrimination Act and Safe Schools Improvement Act.

Make 2011 the year we invest in youth and make sure no child is left behind by making inclusive safe schools  a reality.

Get Involved today: Safe Schools Action Network, GLSEN, Make it Better Project, Project Life Vest, Operation Shine America, PFLAG, Trevor Project, It Gets Better Project, Ali Forney Center, GSA Network and your local PTA, LGBT community Center, classroom, school board or college campus.

If you need help please call The Trevor Help Line at: 1-800-U- TREVOR (800-488-7386)



Bully-Free Zones: Not on NARTH’s Agenda

[Shannon Cuttle is an educator, school administrator, safe schools advocate and trainer, community organizer, and policy wonk.]

This weekend at the Marriott Renaissance-Airport Hotel in Philadelphia, PA, the organization NARTH will hold their annual conference. NARTH is no ordinary organization; draped in disguise as a “scientific research” community lies an organization that uses inaccurate and misguided information that  harms not just adults but youth and families.

NARTH most recently has been in the news over  the Rekers scandal, but even before that they made headlines this past March with a letter that went out to over 800 school superintendents nationwide through their American College of Pediatricians, a fake organization created to be confused with the authentic American Academy of Pediatrics. The letter denounced GLSEN’s Day of Silence and announced a new youth program with so called “resources”  for families. Under the guise of the American College of Pediatricians, the misleading Facts About Youth: Informing About The Sexual Development of Youth website offers inaccurate and  harmful material for all youth, especially gender non-conforming and LGBT youth and families.

The Facts About Youth website outlines “how to seek reparative treatment for your homosexual child” and outlines “what to do if your child shows homosexual tendencies.” Under the topic of Empowering Parents of Gender Discordant and Same-Sex Attracted Children,” the Facts About Youth website also contains inaccurate and misguided information for educators.

The so-called American College of Pediatricians is not a real medical or scientific organization nor is it affiliated with any accredited medical or collegiate association or organization.

The NARTH Facts About Youth website includes a misleading  statement speaking out against real scientific medical associations including the American  Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychiatric  Association, along with the real  National Education Association over the real and accurate document Just the Facts about Sexual Orientation and Youth: a primer for principals, educators and school personnel .

During the NARTH conference this weekend, sessions will be held on youth, families, and schools. While 9 in 10 LGBT youth are bullied and harassed and 84.6% endure harassment in school daily, organizations such as NARTH, the American College of Pediatricians, Facts About Youth, the American Family Association, and others are leading the charge to fuel the fire of intolerance and hate.

We need to speak out against those who spread inaccurate and hurtful  information that is damaging our communities and creating a hostile environment for youth. We need to hold those accountable that are allowing messages of hate and intolerance in our communities. And we need to stand up to those individuals and organizations that support them. The lives of LGBTQ youth are depending on it.



Walking The Talk of “Safe Schools”

[Shannon Cuttle is an educator, school administrator, safe schools advocate and trainer, community organizer, and policy wonk.]

On October 26, 2010, the Department of Education released a letter sent to schools, colleges, and universities stressing the importance of creating welcoming places for all students and a reminding them that public funding could be in jeopardy to those schools and institutions that do not comply as outlined in Title IX.

Title IX, part of the 1972 Education Amendment, states that no person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.

The letter from the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) was meant to be a general guidance statement with hypothetical examples of situations of bullying and harassment it was not a change in law for schools, colleges, and universities that receive public education fund under Title IX. The Department of Education and its OCR have not made changes to Title IX and the timely-dated letter reminded school leaders that Title IX does not cover discrimination in the basis of sexual orientation. The letter may imply the crossing over of sexual orientation and sexual harassment together, but without actual protections and clearly stated laws that explicitly cover gender identity and sexual orientation, not all students and educators are protected.

This is not the first time the Department of Education has made an announcement on Title IX, but it is the first time that the department has mentioned Title IX in a letter to schools, colleges, and universities speaking of bullying and harassment. Nothing new was learned from the release of the letter that school officials and leaders were not already aware of.

On January 22, 2009 the Supreme Court of the United States overturned a lower court ruling in the case of Fitzgerald v. Barnstable School Committee , in which the parents of a kindergartner from Hayannis, MA, challenged the the Title IX law after a third grader bullied their child at school over a span of six months. After that ruling, the Department of Education issued a statement saying they were going to review Title IX and letters were sent to notify institutions nationwide.

In April, 2010, Vice President Joe Biden issued a “Dear Colleague” letter which withdrew a 2005 interpretation of the Title IX policy that issued compliance standards around the country and put Title IX in a state of assessment and research with surveys, where it still stands today.

But, do a stern letter and a survey alone do much without actual changes in how we create safe schools in our own communities? And what do we do when sometimes the biggest bullies may be in positions that control how we keep schools safe for all students and families?

Local school districts nationwide, along with colleges and universities, have made statements that they will comply with the letter that was sent out by (OCR) while others such as Godfrey-Lee Superintendent in Michigan have complained.

Recently in Arkansas, school board member Clint McCance made comments on his Facebook page stating:

Seriously they want me to wear purple because five queers killed themselves… I cant believe the people of this world have gotten this stupid. We are honoring the fact that they sinned and killed thereselves because of their sin.

In Utah, two school board members running for office on the Washington County District School Board have said they want to “eliminate or deteriorate the (GSA) clubs” in the local High School.

In Chicago, police officer Michael Carrol (who is running for Alderman in the 46th Ward) set up a committee to tackle safe schools from drugs and gangs. When asked about anti-bullying and harassment protections including LGBT youth, his reply was, “There are no problems with LGBT kids being bullied in my neighborhood. We dont have any I know of”.

In California, gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman has said that she does not condone violence by any means but would not support schools to enforce policies that would lead to what she referred to as “special protections.”

And in races across the country, many running for office from all sides of the political spectrum are using the vague phrase “safe schools,” trying to sway voters on the left and right. Anti-bullying and safe schools have become hot topics of conversation in the news and on the campaign trails. But, if we really are going to create inclusive safe schools we need action and not lip service.

So, we must start from the ground up and demand more accountability from our school leaders, school boards and our local, state and federal leaders.We must be engaged and informed with what is happening in our local schools and communities. That is why it is so important for you to get informed and vote today! Youth that do not have a voice need you to be theirs at the polls to help create inclusive safe schools.



Spirit Day Beyond Purple

[Shannon Cuttle is an educator, school administrator, safe schools advocate and trainer, community organizer, and policy wonk.]

Over the past few weeks we have seen a great amount of interest and support for the youth who recently have lost their lives to bullying and harassment, from celebrities to politicians to organizations and campuses nationwide creating vigils, events, and videos opening the door to discussion on LGBTQA bullying and harassment in our schools and universities. These conversations are important but they are only the start.

Today, thousands of people around the country and the world will be wearing “purple” in honor of Spirit Day” meant to be a day of remembrance of the 6 LGBTQ youth (plus all since then) who took their own lives from bullying and harassment at the start of this school year. The day, started by a Canadian youth Brittany McMillian over Facebook, has received an international response and has grown to be endorsed by organizations, celebrities, businesses, politicians and newspapers all supporting and encouraging others to wear “purple” today.

But has the message reached beyond the color “purple” as to what we need to do to support anti-bullying/harassment and fight hate in our schools?

Yesterday, I spoke with a government official about “Spirit Day” and asked what they were doing in support. The response was “wearing purple for purple day at work”. When I asked why they were wearing “purple for purple day at work” the reply I received was, “because…… it is purple day”.

Visibility is an important step in any movement or awareness campaign, but so is messaging.

I have seen a number of mixed messages on what the importance of “Spirit Day” represents on October 20th with many groups. Some have said the day is to show solidarity for only 6 LGBTQ suicides while others have said it is for a gay awareness day or just plain purple day. One thing I do know we need is to recognize all within the LGBTQA community who have suffered and/or lost their lives from bullying and harassment. Since the start of the Facebook page for “Spirit Day,” at least 13 other LGBTQ/gender non-conforming youth have lost their lives to bullying and harassment.

For me, I would like to think that today the color purple, which means spirit on the LGBT pride flag, represents a united front from all communities standing together against bullying and harassment for all LGBTQA students, educators, and families in supporting inclusive safe schools.

Hope + Action = Change

We need to create a collective response of hope and change to empower our youth and communities to take a stand against all forms of bullying and harassment. The spirit of that collective response will be a powerful force leading the way to change and support for youth.

Today, as we remember youth that have lost their lives to bullying and harassment, don’t just change your avatar, but take the next step to create change in your local community. Send a message of hope and action. Reach out to your co-workers, neighbors, family members and friends on why you are wearing purple for Spirit Day and what it means. Write an op-ed in your local paper on why anti-bullying and inclusive safe schools are important to you and your city, county, town, or state. Volunteer your time today to a local GSA, community center, college campus, or K-12 school. Call, email or fax your leaders about why anti-bullying and inclusive safe schools legislation is important for all youth. Help start the next steps to ensure that all youth, including all who may be gender non-conforming or LGBTQA, have safe spaces and inclusive classrooms.

Let’s keep the spirit of all communities coming together to combat intolerance and hate beyond today and make it a part of our everyday.



Agent for Change

[Shannon Cuttle is an educator, school administrator, safe schools advocate and trainer, community organizer, and policy wonk.]

On a cloudy Fall day, I walked out my classroom door and onto the blacktop with several of my classmates demanding equality. Organized only the previous day over the weekly famous chicken nugget Tuesday around a lunch room table with crayola markers in hand, I had held my first activist meeting unknowingly in 5th grade. Our local elementary school custodian who was near retirement age lost his small office space inside the boiler room—also known as the “Toy Hospital”—and was being forced to work longer hours that would prevent him from caring for his ill wife.

I was disgusted by the lack of compassion for such a committed professional who took extra care to find lost items, shovel mazes in the playground in the snow, fix broken toys, and always offer a smile with a helping hand. He was the grandfather of the school and was loved by many. The new school administration decided to take an approach that custodians were not in fact “real” school employees and cut office space use and 9-5 schedules.

On the hard blacktop of the playground that crisp Fall morning, we sat without jackets as my teacher came outside with others to speak to the small group of us on the blacktop. Our demands were simple: give our beloved custodian his office back and let him take care of his family, treating everyone equal. Soon the school principal came outside and told us that we needed to go back to class. Some did while others refused, I asked for a meeting with my school principal and she agreed. Sitting in my prinipcal’s office with all of the large pictures of graduating classes on the walls, I repeated my demands for our beloved custodian.

My principal and I spoke for over an hour and at the end of the conversation she agreed to let the custodian use the bolier room once again as an office space. I did however get comunity service hours for my protest on school grounds and for leaving class, but my prinipcal and I agreed that I may do my community service hours with the custodian helping him around the school. My principal and I also decided to meet weekly on Fridays to discuss the needs of my elementary school. Fridays at 2:00 became one of my most favorite things about Elementary School and many of our talks led to school improvements, committees, and applications that lasted for years after I had moved on to Jr. High and High School.

Today, many years later, I look back at that moment and think of the power that each of us had using our voice to fight intolerance and stand up for equality. No matter how big or how small you are or where you come from, your voice is the most powerful tool to create change.

There is no perfect time or perfect place to stand up for what is right. I think of  Marco Melgoza, Will Phillips, Nkosi Johnson David Ashby, Derrick Martin, Ceara Sturgis, Oakleigh Reed and the countless others I wish I had room to write about. All different ages, backgrounds and abilities using their voice to create change each and every day.

All of us can do it.

Take a stand, use your voice and be a fierce advocate for change at any age.