NEW YORK CITY — Jared Fox’s first job when he joined the Department of Education was training teachers across the city to use smartboards, iPads and other technology.
But it was his volunteer after-school work as the founder of the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network’s New York chapter that led him to his current groundbreaking position with the DOE — as the department's first liaison for LGBTQ students.
“The thing that kept me awake at night was LGBTQ students, and making sure that they were safe,” said Fox, 28, who said he experienced discrimination while growing up gay in Cleveland and attending Catholic schools, and even as an adult while teaching in Louisiana.
“This position is really important for kids who are out and experiencing things [like] bullying and coming to terms with their identity. Then there's also this huge population of kids who are still trying to figure out who they are.”
The position was created within the department's Office of Safety and Youth Development to support LGBTQ students and work with the community.
So far, Fox has settled into the job by listening and meeting with principals, teachers and students. While some schools have established groups and resources for LGBTQ students, others are just starting to pull those things together, he said.
Lois Herrera, CEO of the Office of Safety and Youth Development, said the DOE hopes to “promote a positive school climate and culture” for LGBTQ students.
Fox is “a valuable addition to our team, who will be working with city agencies and community organizations to help schools support, protect and provide resources to LGBTQ students, families and community members,” she added.
Funding for the role was made possible by the City Council, which voted to set aside money in the budget for the position. Spearheading the charge was Councilman Danny Dromm, a former public school teacher who came out in 1992 and has been at the forefront of pushing for LGBTQ issues.
Dromm said when he worked in the classroom, gay teachers and students had to stay mostly closeted. He was even disciplined by his Sunnyside school administration after telling his students he was gay.
“The department has taken a bold step forward to assure students and teachers alike that anti-gay discrimination will not be tolerated and that, in fact, the department will look for ways to be more inclusive of the LGBT communities,” Dromm said.
For Fox, the journey to his new job has been a very personal one.
As a student in Cleveland, his mom had to pull him out of his local Catholic high school because of bullying. He transferred to his local public school, which he said was the “best thing that happened to me.”
While there, he started the city’s first gay-straight alliance, pushing for same-sex couples to be allowed at proms.
Fox later taught English through the Teach for America program in a New Orleans-area school, finding more students who needed his guidance.
The city is “a blue dot in a red state, but it’s still Louisiana,” he said, and many kids struggled with their identities.
He eventually launched another gay-straight alliance, this time as a teacher, helping students come to terms with their sexuality and offering a place for them to discuss it.
Fox’s three years as a teacher in Louisiana “helped me to build a lot of empathy with what teachers go through and having to make schools safer,” he said.
He joined the DOE three years ago in their technology department, and he’s excited to now be able to make his part-time passion his focus.
“As we go forward it's first about listening and then about building a community-driven strategy,” he said.
Fox has taken an interest in the school curriculum, which he said currently only includes the history of the Stonewall Riots and the AIDS epidemic in its LGBTQ-related curriculum.
“That's the only two things that's state-mandated that kids need to learn — you have to fight, and you’re going to die,” he said.
He hopes to expand that curriculum by bringing LGBTQ authors into schools and adding their books to the curriculum so students have a more balanced portrayal.
Ultimately, Fox’s job is to make a more welcoming environment for everyone, including teachers, faculty and families.
“I want them to feel safe,” he said.