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High school students nationwide protest antigay discrimination with Day of Silence

BY JULIE LEVIN, Special to The Miami Herald

Students across Broward County joined a nationwide effort to protest discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students. And they didn't have to resort to loud demonstrations to get their point across.

``We are being silent to show others what it is like when they stay silent toward discrimination and hate crimes,'' said Danielle Ott, 17, a junior who is the president of the Gay-Straight Alliance, or GSA, at Cypress Bay High School.

More than 100 students participated in the Day of Silence April 16 at the Weston school.

The Alliance, in partnership with the school's Human Relations Council and Health Occupations Students of America chapter, took part in the Day of Silence to bring attention to the impact of anti-gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender behavior, like bullying, name-calling and harassment.

The Cypress Bay protest was held in honor of Denise King, the mother of slain 17-year old Simmie Williams Jr., who was the victim of a hate crime two years ago in Fort Lauderdale.

King, who had become a strong advocate for gay and lesbian rights since her son's death, died of a heart attack New Year's Eve.

King never knew who killed Simmie on Feb. 22, 2008, in a vacant lot off Sistrunk Boulevard.

``We need to let our fellow students know so many people are being hurt by what is going on,'' said Lisandro Crouzeilles of Weston, former president of the Gay-Straight Alliance.

Teri Williams, a Prevention Specialist with Broward County School Board's Office of Prevention Program, said there are 23 Gay-Straight Alliance groups in the county.

She said at least nine other high schools held similar Day of Silence events including Dillard High School and Northeast High School in Fort Lauderdale; Coral Springs High School, J.P. Taravella and Coral Glades in Coral Springs; Boyd Anderson in Lauderdale Lakes; Deerfield Beach High School; and Plantation High School.

The students took a vow of silence for the entire school day, speaking only if asked a question in class by a teacher.

The Cypress Bay students wore stickers and handed out ``speaking cards'' to their classmates that explained their mission:

``Please understand my reasons for not speaking today. I am participating in the Day of Silence, a national youth movement protesting the silence faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and their allies in schools. My deliberate silence echoes that silence, which is caused by harassment, prejudice, and discrimination.''

Organized by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, the Day of Silence draws hundreds of thousands of supporters from schools (grades K-12), colleges and universities nationwide. Since its inception in 1996, it has become one of the largest student-led actions in the country.

``We want people to see how hurtful it is when others have to be silent, when they can't be open because of discrimination that is around,'' said Mitch Rivers, a 15-year old sophomore at Cypress Bay.

In 2007, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network organized a National School Climate survey to measure the experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students. According to the group's website, the survey found that nearly 9 of 10 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students experienced harassment at school during the previous year, three-fifths felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation and about a third skipped a day of school in the past month because due to feeling unsafe.

The Gay-Straight Alliance aims to provide students with a welcoming and supportive environment. Throughout the year, they organize events aimed at spreading tolerance and acceptance. ``The answers to the problems that exist in terms of discrimination and prejudice stem around ignorance,'' Williams said. ``What these students are doing is simply a symbolic gesture that is meant to promote education.''

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