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Posted on Tue, Feb 21, 2012 : 5:56 a.m.

Neutral Zone's Riot Youth advocate for better treatment of students at Ann Arbor schools

By Danielle Arndt


Neutral Zone Riot Youth members, from left, Indigo Spranger, Kylah Thompson, Mishka Repaska, Emma Upham and Avery Bond, meet to discuss anti-bullying policy recommendations for the Ann Arbor Public Schools.

Chris Asadian I

Indigo Spranger, a sophomore at Skyline High School, has not been to a school-sanctioned dance since the seventh grade, when she says she was harassed for wearing pants.

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.”

The history of Riot 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.


Skyline High School sophomore Indigo Spranger talks about her experiences as an LGBTQ youth in Ann Arbor.

Chris Asadian I

In 2009, Riot Youth collected 1,102 survey responses from Ann Arbor high school students. But as members said is typical, not all of the schools were welcoming to Riot Youth’s efforts, so the survey was distributed at Community, Huron, Pioneer and Ann Arbor Technological High School.

Stories uncovered

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.

The power of outreach

Riot Youth was invited to participate in a school climate and bullying discussion with the Ann Arbor Board of Education Wednesday night.

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.


Riot Youth member Mishka Repaska talks about anti-bullying measures the group of teens would like to see Ann Arbor Public Schools take.

Chris Asadian I

Repaska added Riot Youth would like to see AAPS adopt an anti-bullying policy that is clearly enumerated and lists different categories of bullying.

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.

Only as strong as its allies

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.

Staff reporter Danielle Arndt covers K-12 education for Follow her on Twitter @DanielleArndt or email her at


Charley Sullivan

Wed, Feb 22, 2012 : 6:03 a.m.

Zax, please don't confuse sex and sexuality. Focusing on sex and acknowledging sexuality are two very different things. But how nice for your kids that they can go to school and no-one has ever even thought about whether they were straight or gay or whatever. But if you think that's really the case, perhaps I can suggest to you gently, as a former high school teacher and current college coach, that you might be deluding yourself if you think it never comes up in high schools, or for that matter, in elementary schools and at college. I agree with you that treating people with equal respect is key. The research by these students demonstrates quite clearly, however, that there is an issue with that for non-heterosexual and non-gender-compliant students. (Which of course doesn't mean it's not also an issue for other students; some of the most vicious bullying I ever saw in high schools was by straight girls towards other straight girls, and it was very much about sexuality, attractiveness and boys, just as an example of how your children might possibly have had their sexuality addressed at school.) To make things eventually not an issue, you have to first deal with the issue!

Joe Summers

Wed, Feb 22, 2012 : 5:11 p.m.

I just want to add my word of thanks to Riot Youth and all those working to help create a society where all are treated with dignity and respect. Your work helps inspire others to claim their voice. Thank you all!!!!

elephant web

Wed, Feb 22, 2012 : 2:29 a.m.

Wonderful work-- this is how a new generation of leadership is formed. Go teens. Go Riot Youth. Power On.

Spencer Thomas

Tue, Feb 21, 2012 : 10:16 p.m.

A few years ago, Riot Youth was a fantastic support for a teen acquaintance of mine who was struggling with issues of their own sexual identity. I feel blessed to live in a community where people are, more often than not, accepted for who they are, rather than reviled because they are not who someone else thinks they should be. But we're (clearly) not all the way there, and Riot Youth is one group working towards a world in which we all follow the "Platinum rule": not only to treat others as we would wish to be treated, but to treat them as *they* would wish to be treated. Bravo!

Spencer Thomas

Tue, Feb 21, 2012 : 10:17 p.m.

Sorry for the duplicate post. I thought my earlier one had been removed. But when I posted this one, the earlier one reappeared.

Spencer Thomas

Tue, Feb 21, 2012 : 7:23 p.m.

Riot Youth was a fantastic support for my daughter when she was struggling with her own sexual identity issues in her mid-teens. I feel blessed to live in a community where people are, more often than not, accepted for who they are, rather than reviled because they are not who someone else thinks they should be. But we're not all the way there, and Riot Youth is one group working towards a world in which we all follow the "Platinum rule": not only to treat others as we would wish to be treated, but to treat them as *they* would wish to be treated. Bravo!


Tue, Feb 21, 2012 : 7:07 p.m.

Some of the posters here seem to be implying that if LGBT kids would just stay a little deeper in the closet, there would be no problem. And if hetero kids end up getting a sense of an LGBT kid's orientation, then they are fair game. Don't Ask, Don't Tell is apparently alive and well. What BS!


Tue, Feb 21, 2012 : 6:44 p.m.

Riot Youth is doing a great job bringing this issue to the forefront of the public's attention. I worry about these youth though and what message Michigan is sending them - there are no civil marriage rights for committed gay couples, and public employees can no longer receive benefits through the state. Most gay teachers in Michigan cannot be out in their schools and would risk termination by being out (it's okay though to put pictures of your heterosexual partner in your classroom, pictures of your children, talk about your heterosexual partner with coworkers, etc.). Kudos to these students for not allowing the public to get away with treating them as sub-human. Let's hope the rest of Michigan can catch up.


Tue, Feb 21, 2012 : 6:37 p.m.

The comments here are all the proof anybody needs that we still have a long way to go as a society.

Lisa Dengiz

Tue, Feb 21, 2012 : 6:16 p.m.

Bravo to the Riot Youth teen members and to its brilliant and visionary teen founder, Lewis Wallace for so many successful years of outstanding leadership, programs and support! So many diverse youth, parents, educators have benefited tremendously from your surveys, presentations and programs . I urge all readers to open their hearts and minds to these beautiful young leaders who ask only for greater understanding and tolerance from their peers and elders. And many thanks to AAPS and other visionary districts for taking a leadership role in partnering with Riot Youth!

Wolf's Bane

Tue, Feb 21, 2012 : 5:34 p.m.

Riot Youth want better treatment? Looks like they got it; a full on interview by a none-paper and all the attention that can possibly be lavished upon middle class kids. A2 Public School are alright and this group needs to ante up and learn to play by the social rules; every subculture has its rules and mores. This includes this group. What these kids need are two months in 3rd World country doing hardcore volunteer work to help them see beyond their pierced noses. Life is far more complex than this!


Tue, Feb 21, 2012 : 9:38 p.m.

Are you for real?? Ante up? Play by the "social"rules?? What does that mean? That sounds like you have never experienced discrimination either yourself, or to anyone you care about. It happens. It happens everyday, in every socioeconomic class, in every school district, in every state. This is NOT something new. This group is building partnerships with the schools to make everyone safer, not for the sake of attention seeking middle class kids. I live here, and it really scares me to think that not only would you make the comments that you made, but that 3 people actually gave you a "thumbs up". Maybe a trip to a third world country could do "you" some good!


Tue, Feb 21, 2012 : 6:22 p.m.

What happened to the rules and mores of your mom? If you don't have anything nice to say, then....


Tue, Feb 21, 2012 : 5:23 p.m.

Zax, can you spell d-e-n-i-a-l? Just because you have not heard about rampant bullying doesn't give you the right to pass judgment about whether it is a problem. To me it is disgraceful to accuse these young people who are putting themselves on the line of "trying to get attention." They need our support.


Tue, Feb 21, 2012 : 3:17 p.m.

@Zax Seriously? Have you or any of the posters been paying attention to what is happening in our school systems around the country? Teens and younger kids have taken their own lives because they were bullied. It is not just about our LBGT kids, this is about all kids who are ridiculed in our schools because they "appear" to some to be different. No one here is throwing their sexual orientation preferences in the face of others, they are simply saying that I want the same repect as all the other kids attending. By saying that then I suppose a heterosexual high school couple showing affection is throwing their preference in the face of others. This is precisely the reason why kids have a hard time talking to school officials about bullying and discrimination. The adults who are suppose to protect our kids are failing!


Tue, Feb 21, 2012 : 3 p.m.

This article reminds me of Katherine Hepburn. Why Katherine? Because she went against the grain. She went against the norm. Girls of today need to take a hard look at her life and realize one thing. She never once wore a dress, ever. She hated them. She wore pants to the day she died. So when I read this article I am appalled that these girls are upset that the norm is telling them something they need to go against if it is something they do not believe in. Goodness gracious me. Get real ladies and wear pants. As for problems in the schools? Tell someone. Do not keep it in. I am a strong advocate against bullying and mine was. I made absolutely sure mine wasn't even though there was someone after her, I made sure the school knew. That bully is no longer in the Ann Arbor system and now ours is doing great. No problems. So, you know what I say? Tell your parents what is gong on at school all the time. Tell the system what is going on if you see it. Otherwise? This article should never have been written if someone like the person who wrote this came forward and started a group to let the system know not now not ever. Nice article. Too bad I am ahead of the game here.


Tue, Feb 21, 2012 : 1:47 p.m.

Back in the seventies we were not told how to dress for the prom or dances, and many girls wore pants or split skirts they called them back then. Kids did go to prom as couples though and I don't remember a gay couple being there. The trend to go to prom in groups has become very popular, and my son went to Community Highs prom single and there was no problem at all. I am wondering if this is truly a problem or kids trying to create a problem to get attention. If no one is stopping them from being themselves then what is the problem? I have two kids attending high school in Ann Arbor and neither one has been asked about their sexuality, neither one focuses on that especially at school. My kids are there to learn and yes they socialize, but their sexuality has never come into question or been an issue. Are these kids forcing an issue that has no place in school. In high school and middle school it really shouldn't matter at all what kids sexual orientation is, as well as their religion, family income, where they moved here from, sex is not something I want my kids focusing on in middle school and high school. Treating everyone with equal respect, not putting your own preferences, background or belief systems in everyones face is by far a better learning environment in my opinion.

Angry Moderate

Mon, Feb 27, 2012 : 8:08 p.m.

You have no idea what your kids think or talk about at school, and based on your post, they probably wouldn't tell you if they were bullied for being gay.


Tue, Feb 21, 2012 : 3:01 p.m.

I agree with your one line. Children trying to create a problem. There is no problem. It is the children who want to create it. This is were bullying and the under lying problems occur. Nothing new here.