August 30, 2017 at 12:03 pm EDT | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
Delaware school district forms committee to address bullying
Cape Henlopen High School, gay news, Washington Blade

The new LGBTQ Outreach Committee was formed following media reports of inadequate response to bullying at Cape Henlopen High School. (Washington Blade photo by Lou Chibbaro, Jr.)

In a development that surprised some LGBT activists, the superintendent of the Cape Henlopen School District in the city of Lewes, Del, which is next to Rehoboth Beach, approved the creation of the Cape Henlopen LGBTQ Outreach Committee.

Superintendent Robert Fulton told the Washington Blade the committee was formed following media reports of concerns expressed by students at Cape Henlopen High School, also located in Lewes, that school officials were not adequately addressing longstanding concerns of anti-LGBT bullying at the school.

Reports of the bullying and complaints by LGBT students that school officials were ignoring their appeals for help surfaced at a June 19 community forum in Rehoboth Beach held at the LGBT community center CAMP Rehoboth.

About 25 of the more than 75 people attending the CAMP Rehoboth meeting, most of whom are LGBT community advocates, agreed to form a committee to address the students’ concerns. They named the committee The Council of Elders and designated Rabbi Beth Cohen, religious leader of the LGBT supportive Seaside Jewish Community in Rehoboth, to serve as its coordinator.

Members of the Council of Elders said they learned about the school district’s LGBTQ Outreach Committee when school district official Michael Young contacted them and invited them to attend the committee’s first meeting in July. Among those invited to attend were CAMP Rehoboth Executive Director Steve Elkins and Cohen.

“The committee was formed as a result of information in the media and other sources that students were reaching out to members of the greater community to share concerns about situations at school,” Fulton told the Blade in an email. “We saw this as an opportunity to partner more closely with organizations trusted by our students to help improve communication about concerns in the future,” he said.

“There seemed to be an immediate need because several of the statements shared by students were serious accusations that we first heard of through the media,” said Fulton.

He was referring to stories about the June community meeting at CAMP Rehoboth in the Washington Blade and the Cape Gazette, a newspaper that covers news in Sussex County, where Rehoboth and Lewes are located.

The school district’s decision to form the committee also came at a time when many LGBT students and parents expressed deep concern over what they believe was the forced resignation of Cape Henlopen High School’s popular theater teacher Martha Pfeiffer allegedly because of her outspoken support for LGBT students.

School officials have declined to comment on the circumstances surrounding Pfeiffer’s resignation, saying personnel matters must remain confidential under school district policies.

Elkins and Salvatore Seeley, who coordinates CAMP Rehoboth’s community outreach programs, said they were hopeful that the school district’s committee would work in tandem with the Council of Elders group to address the concerns raised by LGBT students.

Elkins said he was informed by school district official Young that the next meeting of the school district committee would be held in mid-September.

“We want to be there as a resource for them,” Seeley told the Blade. “But we wanted to remain an independent group of LGBTQ members who are concerned about the youth in our community,” he said.

“So we’re hoping to work together with them but we realized we have different objectives on some issues than what they have,” Seeley said.

Several LGBT students from Cape Henlopen High School, including a transgender student, told the CAMP Rehoboth meeting in June that their repeated attempts to persuade the school administrators and teachers to address bullying targeting LGBT students have been ignored.

“We have to fend for ourselves,” gay student Adrian D’Antoni, who graduated from Cape in June, told the meeting. “It’s the worst feeling on the face of the planet.”

Lesbian student Sarah Ross, who begins her senior year when the school year begins Sept. 5, said one of her lesbian friends at the school filed a bullying report with the administration as part of a procedure set up by school officials to respond to bullying incidents.

“Nothing happened,” Ross told the meeting. “Boys on the sports teams were doing the bullying. She was so upset she stopped going to class.”

Several of the LGBT students and LGBT advocates who attended the CAMP Rehoboth meeting expressed surprise and anger when one of the speakers at the meeting, Gary Colangelo, who serves as a school-approved mentor for Cape Henlopen High’s Gay-Straight Alliance club, wrote a letter to the editor of the Cape Gazette disputing the students’ claims that school officials were unresponsive to their concerns.

According to Colangelo, the students’ claims that the school administration was unresponsive were not backed up by sufficient evidence, “rendering what they were saying to hearsay.”

He criticized the Cape Gazette’s reporter who wrote the story about the CAMP Rehoboth meeting for taking at face value the students’ allegations without investigating whether the allegations were accurate.

Similar to the Blade’s story on the meeting, the Cape Gazette’s reporter contacted Superintendent Fulton and reported his response to the students’ concerns. He said the school thoroughly investigates all reports of bullying and harassment and responds by enforcing the school district’s student code of conduct.

At least one former Cape Henlopen High School student who had served as president of the Gay-Straight Alliance during the 2015-2016 school year, Richard Sommerfield, posted a reader’s comment taking strong exception to Colangelo’s letter to the editor.

Sommerfield said Colangelo did not attend a number of meetings between GSA members and school administrators and appears not to have a clear understanding of the actions taken by LGBT students to substantiate what he called the school’s sluggish or non-existent response to bullying reports.

“Rather than further investigate claims from concerned and scared students, you seem to invalidate them,” Sommerfield wrote. “But if there wasn’t a problem at Cape, then we wouldn’t be hearing this much outcry, would we? Be careful because your good intentions in your letter paint you the same color as the bullies.”

Colangelo responded to Summerfield’s and a half dozen or more other posted comments objecting to his letter by saying he doesn’t dispute the fact that bullying at the school is taking place. Instead, he said he disputes claims that school officials are not being responsive, saying he has observed they have been responsive.

Seeley of CAMP Rehoboth questioned the decision by Colangelo to publicly criticize LGBT students’ personal testimony of inaction by school officials. Seeley said that Colangelo, in his role as a mentor to the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance club, may be interacting this fall with some of the same students he accused of not substantiating their claims about the school’s response to bullying reports.

Colangelo was among those invited to be a member of the school district’s LGBTQ Outreach Committee and among those who attended its first meeting in July.

In his statement to the Blade, Fulton said the three main areas of focus of the committee are to build greater mutual respect and trust among stakeholders; build stronger relationships and connections with the greater community; and promote transparency.

He said those invited to attend the first meeting included people involved in civic, social, governmental and community groups.

“The organizations represented included The Rehoboth Bears, the religious community, student mentors, the Rehoboth Independent Film Society, CAMP Rehoboth, the City of Rehoboth, the City of Lewes, PFLAG, local retailers, and the Rehoboth Beach Art League,” he said.

“Additionally, [school] District employees who attended were the high school psychologist, the GSA Club advisers, the high school principal, a middle school teacher, and Dr. Young,” according to Fulton.

He said no students were invited because the first meeting was intended to reach out to community leaders to begin a dialogue with the school district.

“In the future we may want to invite students, parents and/or guest speakers but that has not been decided as of this time,” he said.

Seeley said the Council of Elders group plans to serve as a source of information and support for LGBT students and their parents.

“There’s such a bad history between LGBT students and that school,” Seeley said. “And we want to give them a place where they can go, especially the parents,” he said. “Our goal is to work with these students and parents and help them get the resources that they need.”

Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade. He has chronicled LGBT-related developments as they have touched on a wide range of social, religious, and governmental institutions, including the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the military, local and national law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church. Chibbaro has reported on LGBT issues and LGBT participation in local and national elections since 1976. He has covered the AIDS epidemic since it first surfaced in the early 1980s. Follow Lou

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