Justice in Buffalo

BYSHOP

Each weekday morning as the sun rises in lakeside Buffalo, N.Y., students make their way to McKinley Vocational High School. Perched on the cusp of the arts district that overlooks Delaware Park, it’s one of nearly 70 facilities operated by Buffalo Public Schools.

Named for President William McKinley — who was assassinated a few blocks away in 1901 — the school serves about 800 youth in a post-industrial town that’s one of the most segregated places on earth. A beautiful and diverse city, it’s not without problems. But it’s definitely a place for students — from pre-K to graduate school — to feel inspired and supported.

LGBTQ students at McKinley High School, however, face a harder time than those who identify as heterosexual or cisgender — exemplified incessantly by a hostile administration headed by an ill-advised principal, Crystal Boling-Barton, who has oppressed youth seeking inclusion.

It’s claimed that Boling-Barton disregarded attempts by students to form a gay-straight alliance, plus, under her watch, announcements over the loudspeaker indicated that same-sex dates were banned from prom and that tickets for “couples” were reserved strictly for opposite-sex couples.

On May 10, the New York Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit in federal court against Boling-Barton, in addition to naming Buffalo City School District, for openly and systematically discriminating against minorities.

“Schools should encourage kids who try to make the learning environment more inclusive for other students,” said NYCLU executive director Donna Lieberman. “But LGBTQ students at McKinley have met only discouragement, inaction, and homophobia from the school and district charged with supporting them. This goes against everything New York stands for.”

Byshop Elliott, 18 (pictured), is the plaintiff in the case and a junior at McKinley High School.

“I care a lot about the school — that’s why it’s so disappointing how it’s acted toward LGBTQ students,” Elliott said. “Everyone should have a chance to feel included and excited about high school, including LGBTQ students. I wish this wasn’t still an issue today, but it is.”

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And that need to feel included is vital, as a recent national survey confirms that those in schools with gay-straight alliances are significantly less likely to feel unsafe, victimized, or harassed based on their sexual orientation of gender identity.

In 2011, Buffalo was rocked by the suicide of 14-year-old Jamey Rodemeyer, who endured homophobic bullying for years.

Friday afternoon, a joint statement from Buffalo Public Schools superintendent Kriner Cash and school board president Barbara Seals-Nevergold was released:

“The District has taken active measures to address the grievances contained in the NYCLU complaint regarding McKinley High School. The District always has and will continue to uphold the democratic principles of active citizenship, personal integrity, civility, and respect for others. Within that greater framework, the District has policy in place to ensure that students of the LGBTQ community are included and accepted in school activities throughout the District.

“McKinley High School senior students were informed today, through acting school administrators and the superintendent’s student support staff, that they may attend next week’s prom with their guest of choice, under the age of 21, with New York State identification.

“In addition, the superintendent has directed staff to assist students in the formation of a Gay Straight Alliance within the school as soon as possible.”

Crystal Boling-Barton has since been placed on leave.

JEFFREY HARTINGER is a writer and lives in San Francisco. Visit his website or follow him @BuffaloGuyinSF.

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