Neutral Zone's Riot Youth advocate for better treatment of students at Ann Arbor schools
Chris Asadian I AnnArbor.com
Three years later, announcements for Skyline’s upcoming prom only remind her of the humiliation she endured for being herself — a lesbian.
“The ‘normal’ dress code that boys should wear pants and girls should wear skirts or dresses has actually been said over the P.A.,” she said. “It’s just hard to hear. Who says it has to be that way?”
Spranger and others in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning community at Ann Arbor Public Schools have countless stories about being harassed, excluded, not accepted, bullied and mentally, physically and verbally assaulted while adults around them seemed clueless.
But dozens of LGBTQ students at AAPS are committed to raising awareness of what is really going on inside school walls and in the hallways.
The group, best known as Riot Youth, hopes to partner with AAPS and eventually districts throughout Washtenaw County to a create more inclusive learning environment for all students.
“We thought it would be the most friendly place to start,” said Riot Youth’s adult adviser, Laura Wernick, of the group’s decision to begin a dialogue with AAPS. “Ann Arbor has this image of itself as being more liberal and accepting — but it’s not as black and white as that.
“Our goal is to help (Ann Arbor’s) self image align with reality and to help people in power realize the intent out there to silence LGBTQ youth.”
A program of Ann Arbor's Neutral Zone, Riot Youth has been around for almost 13 years. It began as a politically empowered group, one hoping to bring social justice to an underrepresented population of teens, Wernick said.
For a number of years, social activism took a backseat in Riot Youth, and the group’s focus shifted to providing a safe space for teens to share their struggles and find support.
But recently, the group’s Gayrilla Theater Project rocketed the teens back into the political arena. And with a renewed statewide attention to bullying and gay rights, the youth are more relevant than ever.
They have performed at district- and state-wide conferences; colleges and universities; professional development seminars for counselors, principals and health educators; and even at the State Capitol for legislators during anti-bullying discussions.
Wernick said Riot Youth’s Gayrilla Theater is the only student-led troupe in the state that combines theater with real stories and statistics gathered in a school climate survey.
“Every time (we perform), there is at least one person crying in the audience,” Spranger said.
Chris Asadian I AnnArbor.com
A point of frustration for LGBTQ students at AAPS is the teachers, principals and counselors who present "passive solutions" for LGBTQ problems, said Riot Youth’s Mishka Repaska, like using a nurse’s bathroom at the opposite end of a school to avoid harassment or transferring to another school to improve their overall experience or trying to graduate early.
“These (solutions) don’t prevent the behavior from happening again,” said Carson Borbely, a 13-year-old eighth-grader at Tappan Middle School.
Riot Youth member Leo Robertson, a now senior at Ann Arbor Tech, understands all too well being told to switch schools to escape bullying. He has attended six AAPS schools since elementary.
But at each school, the bullying persisted.
Robertson, a homosexual male, has had his locker broken into, pride magnets stolen from his car, his car keyed, libelous rumors spread about him and has been the recipient of multiple death threats.
“When I wore my letter for theater, kids would say, ‘Of course a faggot would letter in theater,’” he said. “Every time I look at my (letter) sweater I start shaking and put it away. I haven’t been able to wear it in 2 1/2 years.”
The bullying finally has improved for Robertson, but it’s because at Ann Arbor Tech he’s enrolled in all online classes.
Riot Youth’s Kylah Thompson said talking to bullied kids about “real” solutions and asking questions to understand what students are feeling and the situations they are placed in is important.
“Ask, ‘How can I help you?’ and ‘Why does this stuff happen?’” Thompson said.
Wernick said the board has been an ally to Riot Youth and she greatly respects the trustees for their willingness to take on the tough issues her teens have brought before them.
She said students are an untapped resource for what is really going on in the schools.
“We’re the authority. We live it,” Repaska said.
Chris Asadian I AnnArbor.com
Repaska said this would better protect all students, not just those in the LGBTQ community.
Another change Riot Youth would like AAPS to implement is more comprehensive and extensive reporting requirements for each bullying category as well as additional conflict prevention and management components for peers to engage in.
“It’s not just the policy, though,” said Riot Youth member Emma Upham, a senior at Saline High School. “It’s the follow-through and how the policy is enforced and what happens to students after issues are brought to an adult’s attention.”
Many public commenters at Wednesday’s meeting told stories about AAPS administrators “sweeping” bullying incidents “under the rug” after they or their children filed reports.
Wernick said Ann Arbor’s existing bullying guidelines need to specify what the reporting process is and what happens after an incident is reported.
Ann Arbor Public Schools does not have a formal board policy on anti-bullying, but it will be drafting one prior to June 6 to meet new state requirements.
Upham said the board already has made significant strides since opening a dialogue with Riot Youth. The board recently updated the district’s anti-discrimination policy to include gender identity and gender expression.
“We thank you and congratulate you for taking that step,” Upham said.
Spranger said allies are so crucial to the success of Riot Youth’s efforts.
“If we don’t have allies and there aren’t those people willing to step up and defend queer youth, then what we’re doing is nothing,” she said.
Of the 30 to 40 teens that attend Riot Youth’s weekly meeting, Wernick said 10 percent to 20 percent are straight or cisgendered youth.
The group also hosts a "Queer Prom" each spring and about 300 students from all around Washtenaw County and the greater Detroit area attend.
To read the complete analysis and results of Riot Youth's 2009 survey, click here.