Students' silence on hate speaks volumes

By Sara Bruestle | May 01, 2013
Photo by: Sara Bruestle Kamiak High School junior Sarah Cederberg and freshman Annabel Reardon “break the silence” with a scream at the end of the Day of Silence on April 18. The Gay-Straight Alliance hosted the silent protest to bring attention to bullying and harassment of students in school.

When she heard the screams, Shan Oglesby was filled with joy.

About 500 Kamiak students vowed to stay silent on the Day of Silence on April 18 to call attention to the bullying, name-calling and harassment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students – or any other students – in school.

Students wore masks over their mouths to symbolize the teens who are silenced when they are bullied. Many of them didn’t speak one word at school on Thursday, although teachers asked that they still participate in class.

The allies broke the silence at the day’s end by screaming at the top of their lungs. They met at Kamiak’s flagpole and counted down from three: Then they let it all out.

They later debriefed in the school library to share their experiences – good and bad – with each other and reflect on what the Day of Silence means to all of them.

“What Kamiak has turned it into is a day to peaceful protest and to stand up for all the kids who can’t speak when they’re being bullied,” said Angel Black, president of the Gay-Straight Alliance, which hosted the day. “It’s to show support for all of them.”

The National Day of Silence is a student-led day of action in which students across the country hold a silent protest to demonstrate the actual silencing of LGBT students and their allies.

The school Gay-Straight Alliance hosted the event with several Kamiak partners: Link, Leadership, Human Rights Club, Knights in Action and the Multicultural Club.

The GSA is a five-year-old student club that works to improve school climate for all students regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

“We do a lot of activities aimed toward stopping bullying and increasing tolerance,” said Black, who is a senior. “You know, ‘Don’t hate. Appreciate.’”

Partners of GSA said progress at the school has been slow but continuous and worthwhile: Kamiak is now a safer place for LGBT students and staff.

“I’ve seen a lot terrific support from staff and administration, and a lot more acceptance from the students,” said Gail Anderson, adviser of GSA. “We’re not done, there’s always more work to do, but it’s getting better all the time. We feel really well supported.”

Shan Oglesby remembers the first Day of Silence at the school nearly 12 years ago. The Human Rights Club had tried for two years before the administration allowed the club to host a silent protest.

Oglesby, the club adviser, said the Human Rights Club’s initial efforts were met with hostility and hate from administrators, staff, parents and students.

Posters were vandalized and torn down. Parents called the school to complain or demand that they be stopped. Students taunted the members and other supporters.

“We got shut down, I mean, completely,” she said. “The community wasn’t supportive. We had parents call saying, ‘This is horrible.’ It was a really frightening experience and a very violent climate.”

Oglesby started the Human Rights Club in 1994 with Kamiak student Marko Liias, now a state representative. Since then, she said she’s seen a “tremendous” change in attitude toward LGBT and the Day of Silence.

“It’s hard for students to see in two- or three-year increments, but I can say from 18 years ago, this is a completely different place,” Oglesby said.

“I feel safe here, finally, and I wasn’t always able to say that.”

Whether they can see the changes or not, supporters said they feel like they’re making a difference. Maybe some of their peers don’t agree with the Day of Silence, but at least more of them respect them for staying silent for the cause.

Although, keeping quiet all day wasn’t easy.

“Today was really hard for me, because I’m used to talking a lot,” said Katelyn Willadsen, a junior. “It made me realize how lonely people who are scared to talk during school might feel.”

Katelyn, who is a Link Leader, admitted she broke the silence – a couple of times – at the after-school briefing. After she said that, other supporters chimed in with “Me too.” Others shared that they had had some close calls.

“It’s hard to stay silent, but you kind of have to, to prove a point,” said Diane Dael, a junior. “It’s not about striking back; it’s about standing your ground and making sure they don’t push you over.”

Junior Nikki Long, however, had decided she was going to try for 24 hours of silence. She held up a sign at the Day of Silence briefing that said, “I am trying for a full day, not 6 hours.”

Nikki transferred to Kamiak from Jackson, which she said was a more open and accepting school.

“She said it was like walking into a closet at Kamiak,” Diane said.

Others shared that students didn’t understand what the masks were for: Were they sick? Supporters were ridiculed because the masks made them look like they had swine flu.

If it wasn’t for wearing the masks, students also bullied the silent for openly supporting their fellow LGBT students. One supporter said students yelled, “Kill all the gays” as she walked past.

“I think this day meant more for the people who haven’t been bullied before,” said Brittney Friend, a junior. “They went through this, and they kind of realized what it was like to not be able to speak up for yourself and to be afraid to speak out because of who you are or because you’ve been judged before.”

Brittney said she and Leadership adviser Meg Adams “had a good cry” during lunch about it. The silence had become too overwhelming for Brittney, who said she was bullied a lot as a freshman.

Anderson started the Gay-Straight Alliance in 2008, after realizing there wasn’t one at Kamiak. She had also been the adviser of the GSA at Mountlake Terrace High School before getting a job as a teacher-librarian at Kamiak. She also started that club.

The GSA meets from 2-3 p.m. once a week on Thursdays in the library. You don’t have to be gay to be a member of the club.

“Just by being [here], everybody knows that this building is open and accepting of LGBT students,” she said. “I feel like we have a good, solid base of allies.

“I get kids that smile at me in the hallway, and I don’t know who they are, but I think they know I’m there for them no matter what.”

When freshman Annabel Reardon let out a scream to break the silence, she said it was a moment of release for her mind and body. It felt great, she said.

“I could talk,” she said. “It made me think about those people who do stay silent. They never get that release.”

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