SLA as a Safe Space: Challenges and Blind Spots

Matthew Milligan

Staff Writer

On February 2 there was an incident in which a student at Science Leadership Academy posted a distasteful video on Youtube. Said video entailed the student “coming out” as gay to a friend as a joke. In addition, as part of the joke, the creator of the video suggested that he was talking to openly gay Sophomore Carlos De Jesus, even though no such thing had occurred.

The video elicited a strong response from both students and administrators at SLA, and the creator was suspended for several days.   

The video opened up a larger conversation: is SLA a safe space for LGBTQ students?

The school has an active Gay-Straight Alliance, and many classrooms have “safe space” and “ally” posters hanging in their windows.

While students can attest to SLA being a safer place than some others, that does not mean that there aren’t times were students have felt unsafe.

De Jesus thinks there is work to be done.

“I don’t feel like SLA is completely a safe space, mostly because . . . a safe space for me is where you can be yourself, and I am myself most of the time,” he said, “but there’s other times where I feel like I can’t completely be myself around certain people because I am worried about what some people might think or might do. It’s always like that. I just don’t feel safe.”

He elaborated further by explaining how his sexuality plays into how he presents himself to the world.

“I’m gay, and sometimes I can be a little bit too much about it, and I just like to be able to just talk about whatever I want, if it’s my sexuality or if I just wanna talk about makeup with someone. I do feel like I can do that type of thing around certain people.”

Sophomore Sanaa Scott-Wheeler also feels as though the way she presents herself affects how she interacts with SLA as a safe space.

“At certain times more than others it’s a safe space, it really depends on who you surround yourself with. I know that as an African American female who is pansexual there are a lot of issues, like people only see me as a black girl sometimes they don’t know that I’m pan.”

Scott-Wheeler feels as though, at SLA, people may not always be aware of who they are talking to and how what they say could be offensive.

“People outwardly hate on transgendered people and gay people at this school. They’ll say the things to you but they won’t know that you have a connection with them.”

SLA is known for priding itself on its the diverse community of students. However, some students find that automatically assuming widespread tolerance from the student body can be problematic, because it can allow a lack of awareness of the internal problems that the community has when it comes to student interactions.

“I feel like the community is aware to a certain extent. The other extent is that they don’t want to address the fact that some people are uncomfortable because they don’t know how to fix it . . . we kind of beat around the bush,” said Scott-Wheeler.

De Jesus feels as though people do not remain attentive enough because the situation does not always pertain to them.

“There may be the people who just don’t care about others, so they see it [the school] as a safe space, and then there’s the ones who aren’t really an outcast so they see it as a safe place. But then the kind of minorities that feel like they can’t be themselves, it’s just we notice how SLA is not a safe place, unlike others that might not worry as much as we do.”

So, if SLA is not yet a full-fledged safe space, what can be done to make sure it is one?

Scott Wheeler admits that the situation is a hard one to solve.

“The administration handled it as best as they could of, but how could they handle it better? I’m not sure exactly.”

De Jesus, however, thinks that the answer lies within more open communication.

“They need to have more one on one conversations with the people who were the victims and who were the bullies and stuff like that. I just don’t feel like they do enough of that.”

Health and P.E. teacher Pia Martin feels as though SLA is a safe space compared to other places, but she also admits there is work that can be done.

“I would consider it, in terms of schools in the district, as one of the safest spaces for students, but saying that I would also say that I recognize that there are ways that we could be safer for students. I consider it a safe space with room for growth.”

Ms. Martin says that the incident with Carlos is still an ongoing process, but that it can be hard to keep up with when other incidents keep occurring.

“Sometimes the urgent gets in way of the important . . . It’s hard to sustain the long-term energy when the spark is no longer burning. So we’ve got the ember, and it’s still there, we’re working the ember, but these other things have cropped up, these other little fires that need attention . . .”

Ms. Martin, like Carlos, believes that having better dialogue about the issues the community faces is important, even if it is uncomfortable for the parties involved.

“It requires lots and lots of good, authentic conversation, and knowing that people’s feelings are going to get hurt frequently.”

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