Students speechless in bullying protest

Annual Day of Silence observed in region

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Sometimes the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Other times silence speaks volumes.

On Friday it was the latter as students throughout the region chose to hold their voices to protest the bullying and harassment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered youth as part of the annual Day of Silence.

Vanessa Davis, chapter director for Pittsburgh Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, said the goal was for 10,000 students, staff and administrators from throughout the 11-county region to participate in the day by keeping silent as much as possible.

While she couldn't say on Friday if the group had met that goal, there were certain pockets of success documented, such as at Pittsburgh Brashear High School where about 400 of the 1,461 students participated and at Pittsburgh CAPA 6-12, where about 75 percent of the 890 students also took part.

In addition, some suburban schools such as Hampton, South Allegheny and Quaker Valley high schools saw students participate as well as Sewickley Academy, where both middle and high school students marked the day.

The first national Day of Silence, sponsored by GLSEN, was held in 2006. According to the Day of Silence website, a Harris Interactive study found that two of the top three reasons students are harassed in school are "actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender expression" and nearly nine of 10 LGBT students experience harassment at school.

The Day of Silence was created to draw attention to the problem and prompt school communities to address it.

At CAPA, members of the Gay-Straight Alliance organized the event and handed out rainbow yarn bracelets to students as they entered the school and explained the pledge to remain silent. Because the event has been held on an annual basis in recent years, teachers were aware of the reason that some students weren't talking.

At some of the other schools where teachers may not have been as aware, students wore T-shirts or carried cards explaining why they were choosing to remain silent.

The point of the silence is to demonstrate the life of silence that many LGBT students experience for fear of being exposed and ridiculed.

"While a loud demonstration would show passion, quiet shows what it's like to be in the closet," said Lizz Bagley, 17, a junior vocal major at CAPA.

Some CAPA students didn't take the bracelets, "which is a little offensive, but at the same time, we had overwhelming support so that made me feel better," said Matt Muschick, 15, a freshman and vocal major at CAPA.

CAPA sophomore Gabriela Pascale Schunn, 16, who voted to stay silent for the day, texted her comments.

"There are some people who don't want to participate because they don't think it will do any good. But I believe it is a show of support," she wrote.

At South Allegheny High School, art teacher Ellen Eyth noticed that her ninth-grade class seemed particularly quiet Friday morning. Then a student wrote a message on a piece of paper explaining the silence. Ms. Eyth said she then remembered the event from last year when some students made T-shirts about the day in art class.

"Some students will talk to teachers and will answer a question from a teacher or an adult but they don't talk to their friends all day," Ms. Eyth said.

At Hampton High School, where a gay-straight alliance was recently formed, principal Jeffrey Finch said he saw about a dozen students taking part in the day of silence. He said the GSA club had a notice about the event included in the school's announcements earlier in the week.

Mr. Finch said some students were showing cards to teachers to explain their silence, others were doing their work and nodding, instead of speaking, in response to questions. "The students are handling it in a mature way, and it did not appear to take anything away from the school day," Mr. Finch said.

At Sewickley Academy, a notice on the district website explained to students various options for participating in the event.

They included complete silence, minimal speaking, wearing a T-shirt or carrying a note card. The middle school planned a lunch of silence for students who wanted to participate.

At Brashear, an active 60-member Gay-Straight Alliance prepared students for the event, selling T-shirts and giving colorful beads to students who registered to take part. "Generally speaking, it was a pretty darn quiet day," said Brashear French teacher Devin Browne.

Mr. Browne said 10 senior members of the alliance had given presentations earlier in the year to younger students on the issue of LGBT bullying.

"Some had experienced it themselves or some had seen it with their friends. These kids talked about knowing friends who had attempted suicide or thought about it. Some of them talked about being threatened to be thrown out by their parents," Mr. Browne said.

Brashear senior and event organizer Athena Xenakis said she was surprised at the participation level at her school.

"Students I never would have guessed were participating and that was exciting to see. A lot more awareness was raised this year. I'm very happy with the way it turned out," she said.

While the day started out quiet at the schools, some students admitted that as the day wore on their resolve weakened.

And at Brashear, at an end-of-day photo session for student organizers, the room was full of chatter.

More chatter also occurred at CAPA later in the day.

"I was quiet for most of the morning, but at lunch it got kind of hard. I really wanted to talk to my friends," said Peter Bartholomew, 18, a CAPA senior.

education - region

Mary Niederberger: mniederberger@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1590.


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