Outright Vermonts in-school program wins back state aid
MONTPELIER — More than a decade after losing its state funding during a divisive debate over civil unions, Vermont’s leading gay-rights organization is again receiving taxpayer money to perform anti-harassment work in public schools.
Outright Vermont on Thursday celebrated the receipt of a $2,000 grant from the Vermont Department of Education.
The modest sum won’t drastically bolster resources for the nonprofit’s education initiative. But Llu Mulvaney-Stanak, director of development at Outright Vermont, said the award carries enormous symbolic significance.
“It’s not just about money,” Mulvaney-Stanak said. “To us, it’s the principle and power of having the commissioner of education saying that work done by Outright Vermont is valuable and important to the state.”
Commissioner of Education Armando Vilaseca said the group’s demonstrated ability to improve classroom conditions for marginalized students makes it an appropriate place to direct state funding.
“Maybe there are folks out there who disagree with the philosophy of the organization or don’t think we should be giving them money,” he said. “But to me it’s all about student safety and school safety, and this is a symbolic gesture to let them know we appreciate the work they do to support our students in our schools.”
Outright Vermont launched its anti-harassment outreach program in 1998, when then-Gov. Howard Dean appropriated about $15,000 to hire the organization’s first education coordinator.
Many public schools quickly embraced the program, inviting the organization in to deliver anti-bullying curriculum during an era in which gay students often were targeted in overt displays of hostility.
As the debate intensified in 2000 over Vermont’s controversial civil unions bill, however, Outright Vermont’s funding became a casualty of mounting political pressure.
“Our funding was specifically targeted because we were a gay organization, and these homophobic groups started saying ridiculous things like we go into schools and recruit our gay agenda, tell kids all about gay sex, none of which is true,” Mulvaney-Stanak said.
Despite a cultural shift that has since seen gay couples win the right to marry, Outright Vermont had still been shut out of state funding.
Thanks to a sustaining grant from the Liberty Hill Queer Youth Fund, Outright Vermont has been able to fund an outreach program that, in the last year alone, administered 152 presentations to more than 4,000 students in schools in all 14 counties.
“Our state funding was never reinstated, so we had to find funding from other sources over the years to allow the program to continue,” Mulvaney-Stanak said. “We saw firsthand how important that work was, because there was no one else doing this kind of thing.”
Mulvaney-Stanak said the climate has changed drastically for gay youth over the past decade, culminating most recently with President Barack Obama’s vocal support for marriage equality.
But statistically, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students are more likely to feel marginalized than their straight classmates.
According to the 2011 Vermont Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 16 percent of gay children reported having attempted suicide in the past 30 days, compared with 3 percent of heterosexual youth. The same report found that nearly one-third of gay kids said they were bullied in the past month, twice the rate for straight youth.
“We absolutely have come a long way,” Mulvaney-Stanak said. “But there are still unacceptable rates of young people being harassed based on their sexual orientation.”
Mulvaney-Stanak said she hopes the grant signals the beginning of a more collaborative relationship between the nonprofit and the state. Outright Vermont is earmarked for another $2,000 grant in 2013.
“We really want to work as partners on school climate safety, and hope the Department of Education works with us in years to come to do more complex work,” she said. “We hope one day to do truly proactive work, where we can tell every school in Vermont, ‘This is how to prepare, this is how to respond, these are the tools you need.’ It doesn’t exist now, and it’s the next step we need to take.”
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