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Supporters and members of PFLAG paint the Y Lafayette sign with rainbow colors on Wednesday, June 19, 2019, at Parc Sans Souci in downtown Lafayette. The month of June is LGBT Pride Month.

The Lafayette Parish School Board backed a resolution Wednesday to recognize and combat bullying against LGBTQ students, just two months after heated and occasionally nasty debate accompanied an LGBTQ Pride month resolution at a Lafayette city-parish council meeting.

The School Board resolution passed on a unanimous 6-0 vote. Board members Tommy Angelle, Jeremy Hidalgo and Britt Latiolais were absent from Wednesday’s meeting.

The resolution, proposed by Republican board member Erick Knezek, called for the board to commit to increasing awareness of bullying against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer/questioning children in Lafayette’s public schools and work to improve policies designed to combat LGBTQ bullying.

“LGBTQ youth have a right to attend schools without having to fear for their safety or the threat of psychological intimidation or physical harm,” the resolution said. “LGBTQ youth should feel safe to learn without the fear of harassment and be allowed to live their lives with dignity and respect without discrimination or prejudice.”

Knezek said after the vote he was proud of the board for passing the resolution. He said it’s important to have courage and discuss difficult issues, because otherwise opposing viewpoints will never be resolved and progress is impossible.

“We did the right thing. … It’s a very uncomfortable subject, and it’s hard for people to vote one way or the other because like Dr. Chassion said, whether you vote for it or against it or you don’t vote at all, you’re angering somebody,” he said.

The board member said he thinks the school board’s action could provide political cover for other elected bodies to pass other LGBTQ-positive or affirming items.

Knezek said the resolution was directly inspired by the previous LCG vote. In June, a close LGBTQ friend approached him and expressed “the suffering and honestly the disgust” he felt after the Lafayette city-parish council in June failed to pass Kenneth Boudreaux’s resolution recognizing June as Pride Month.

The LCG resolution failed after a 4-3 vote. Though those in support had the most votes, they failed to meet the necessary threshold to pass a resolution under Lafayette’s Home Rule Charter.

Knezek said acknowledging the needs of the LGBTQ men, women and children living in the community shouldn’t be controversial. 

“I’m committing us to increasing awareness. Does that hurt anybody? Does that take away anybody’s birthday? No. I’m asking to increase awareness of everybody, our staff, our students, our community, that these people exist … and they do deserve dignity and respect,” he said.

Matthew Humphrey, president of Lafayette’s PFLAG organization, said the passage “felt right” and like a “massive” step toward inclusion for LGBTQ youth. PFLAG is an organization for the parents, family members and allies of LGBTQ people.

Humphrey spoke on behalf of the resolution and detailed bullying he has seen, heard and experienced as a gay man, including slurs, social exclusion and physical violence during his school years. He said having a group in authority like the school board take proactive steps to make LGBTQ students feel supported can go a long way to making them feel safe in school.

“To have the people who administer the schools where these children are and where they’re going to establish their foundations … say we won’t look away, we will look you in the eye, we will acknowledge you, that you do exist, that you are valuable, that you are loved, is just massive,” he said.

Like Humphrey, almost all the public commenters Wednesday spoke in favor of the resolution.

The Rev. Matthew Boudreaux, of the St. Pelagius of the Celts Chapel in Abbeville, said he grew up dreaming of becoming a Catholic priest, but after he was turned away because his psychological assessment revealed he was gay, he was devastated.

He came out to the school counselors at his magnet academy in St. Bernard Parish afterward, and Boudreaux said they accepted him where he was and helped him get through that trying time. Now a seventh-grade English teacher at Paul Breaux Middle, Boudreaux said he spoke to his co-workers and fellow union teachers about the resolution and he found widespread support.

“I come here because I want you to continue the support that Louisiana public schools have always given,” he said. “We’re in full support of this resolution. It helps us to show our kids that we love them first and that we care about every part of their life.”

Louisiana Trans Advocates secretary Peyton Michelle, a transgender woman, related her experiences being bullied in school in St. Martin Parish. She said she was bullied as early as pre-K and the torment continued through her high school graduation in 2016. Michelle said she was aggressively bullied and called gay before she even knew what the word meant.

Michelle was first put on suicide watch in fifth grade — her third fight with suicide.

“At no point did I say it had anything to do with me being gay because I was so ashamed. I had been told for six or seven years at this point that I was terrible and that I should die. People thought I was contagious and said I shouldn’t touch them,” she said.

“While other people are bullied too, I fully, fully know that LGBTQ students face statistically enormously higher rates of suicide and bullying,” Michelle said.

Lafayette clinical psychotherapist Rebecca Bowers said most of her clients are teenagers and young adults and the majority identify as LGBTQ. She said she felt compelled to present evidence to back the resolution, to “speak for youth who might be in fear of speaking for themselves.”

“Suicide is the second leading cause of death for youth ages 10 to 14 and LGBTQ youth contemplate suicide at almost three times the rate of heterosexual youth,” Bowers told the board. “With each LGBTQ victimization, such as verbal or physical harassment or abuse, it increases the likelihood of self-harming behavior by 2.5 times the average person.”

The first two statistics Bowers cited are courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the third is from a study in the American Journal of Public Health.

After the positive vote, Humphrey said he was excited to coordinate with the school system about ways PFLAG can assist in executing the resolution’s directives.

“We want LGBTQ youth to know that they’re intrinsically valuable, and the only way that we do that is by leading the charge to teach everyone, as many people as can and will listen, that they are valuable, that there’s nothing wrong with them, and that we are all created equally,” Humphrey said.

The only person to speak in opposition of the resolution was District 9 school board candidate Diogo Tavares, who said bullying is an epidemic for many children and all students should be protected.

He said he was concerned introducing group-specific resolutions watered down existing efforts and that “having another sentence on the books” wouldn’t solve the root issue of children lacking kindness.

“Is somebody going to come up here and say I have 11 toes; somebody is discriminating against me. Do we need a law for someone with 11 toes?” Tavares said. “No, I think we should just teach our children how to take care of each other and respect each other.”

He said afterward he’s concerned there’s too much division caused by labeling in America, and “no matter what [kids] see themselves as it’s important for them to feel like they’re safe at school.”

Board members also approved a second resolution by board member Tommy Angelle, which broadly addressed bullying against all students and said “bullying is a community wide issue that must no longer be ignored or thought of as a rite of passage.”

Knezek said Angelle’s resolution helped address criticism against his LGBTQ resolution that one group of students shouldn’t be singled out for special treatment, and also helped drive home the point that all bullying must be stopped.

Email Katie Gagliano at kgagliano@theadvocate.com