While the turnout was not overwhelming for the community forum to discuss the issues of homosexuality and bullying raised in the wake of a student's death, the sentiment at East Hampton High School on Monday night was that the community can do more to help children grapple with these sensitive issues.
Long Island Gay and Lesbian Youth, an advocacy organization that has been working closely with the school district, called the meeting two weeks after the death of 16-year-old David Hernandez Barros last month, amidst revelations that he was bullied and that he was gay.
The organization wanted to tap community support for a LGBT youth center on the South Fork. LIGALY runs two community centers, the closest being 60 miles away in Bay Shore, and says there have been demands for one on the eastern end of the island for years.
A community center would provide LGBT youths with a safe environment that offers resources and support.
Kilmnick announced that on Sunday Sag Harbor residents Beatrice Alda — the daughter of actor Alan Alda — and her partner Jennifer Brooke promised a $20,000 matching grant for the community center.
"David is what brought us here tonight. Before David this was happening and after David this is still going to happen," said Daivd Kilmnick, the chief executive officer of LIGALY. "When kids leave here, they need to feel they are walking into a safe environment, or at least an understanding environment."
Harriet Hellman, a pediatric nurse practitioner who said she treated Hernandez, said she supports establishing a center and hopes that a focus will be put on the needs of immigrant children and be inclusive of the entire population. "I like to personally see it named, 'The David Hernandez Center'," she said.
Towards the end of the meeting, East Hampton residents Beverly Dash and Debra Lobel, partners who have been together nearly 55 years, pledged $2,500 toward the first $20,000 the organization needs to raise.
LIGLAY is seeking a space, most likely more centrally located in Southampton, and is working with county and Town of Southampton officials, according to Kilmnick. The organization is also launching an East End LGBT Advisory Committee to help create a center and is looking for volunteers to sit on the committee.
Centers are place where teens could be themselves. "It sounds so simple but it saves lives," Kilmnick said.
Citing national statistics, Kilmnick said that 60 percent of LGBT youth report feeling unsafe, and 80 percent report being verbally harassed due to their sexual orientation.
“We cannot forget the struggles that our young people are facing when they leave school and go out into the community," he said, adding that four in 10 LGBT youth say the community they live in is not accepting.
"Many Hispanic and Latino [gay] youth do not have an outlet to go to in their family or their place of worship," Kilmnick said, adding that it is the organization's experience that this group also often faces physical assault and verbal harassment at higher levels than other groups.
Centers also provide family programs, including groups for parents, drop-in services and safe schools initiatives. Licensed by the State of New York, centers can also provide testing and HIV prevention.
Rhonnie Winokur, an elementary school bus driver who lives in Hampton Bays, told the audience about her struggles growing up gay and being bullied by her own father, even as an adult. "I'm not saying it happened to David at home," she said. "But nothing is worse than you having this kind of pressure at home and having no place to go."
She added that in her job, she's noticed students who she thinks start fights because of problems at home. "They have nobody else to take it out on but other kids," she said. "Is there something we can do with these bullies to turn it into a positive? A negative and a negative don't make a positive."
George Aman, president of the East Hampton Board of Education, asked Kilmnick what he could suggest to make students realize how harmful bullying can be.
While discipline is an obvious option, Kilmnick said it is not the only approach. His organization works with Suffolk County on an alternative to jail for teens who have committed anti-gay hate crimes that provides the teens with education and then requires them to volunteer at the center.
"Many times these kids are getting it from their homes, from their parents or their places of worship," he said. "All change happens local," he said.
Patricia Hope, another board member and a retired high school science teacher, pointed to a new LIGALY program, the Aleph Project, which connects LGBT Jewish youth with Jewish life and experience, while working in partnership with synagogues and Jewish community centers. She asked if LIGALY could model a similar program for the Latino population.
"Yes, it's something we can do. Some communities will take a little bit more work, but what it takes is that visibility," Kilmnick said. "The goal is to take the success of the Aleph project and bring it to other faith communities."
Kilmnick, who founded the LIGALY 19 years ago, said the organization has been working with the East Hampton School District for 17 years and called the district "a role model" for others.
"Can there be more done? There always can be more," he said.
High school principal Adam Fine said the National Center for School Climate and School Culture will be facilitating an assessment of the school, starting Friday, so that administrators can "create a baseline of where we are and how we move forward."
Superintendent Rich Burns said that he was disappointed more community members did not attend the LIGLAY-sponsored event. "I think the more the better," he said.
After a member of the community asked why the district was not directly addressing the bullying claims, assistant principal Maria Mondini said she felt compelled to address the audience. "People want to talk about it as a bullying situation. Of course there was bullying involved. I think you'd be very hard pressed to find somebody that wasn't bullied in high school," she said.
Mondini told the audience that for the first 20 of her 28-year career she never revealed she was a lesbian out of fear she'd lose her jobs. At East Hampton High School, "We talk very openly about a lot," she said, adding that administrators worked closely with Gay Straight Alliance president, junior Joel Johnson in his transition as a transgendered youth.
As a resident of Springs, Johnson said he traveled with friends every Friday last year to the community center in Bay Shore. "The visits gave me the courage to come out to my family. The protection of this school gave me the courage to come out to my friends," he said.