STATEN ISLAND — When he moved back to his native borough of Staten Island from Manhattan to work at a local high school, Anthony Colon feared he'd struggle being an openly gay teacher.
In his own high school experience — in an area that tends to skew more conservative than neighboring boroughs — he felt he had to hide his sexual orientation.
But when he started at New Dorp High School a decade ago, he was pleasantly surprised to find a more open environment at the large institution with nearly 3,000 students.
He became the faculty advisor for the student-run Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) and has since been working with students and colleagues to help put the school at the forefront of a movement to abolish bullying or harassment of students identifying as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or queer (LGBTQ).
“I’ve always been out and I’ve never felt ostracized or bullied by students or faculty," he said.
"It’s always been a supportive environment, but not as vocal as it is now. Now, we have more of a presence in the school."
Colon and fellow GSA club advisor Allessia Quintana, who is also openly gay, wear an OUT for Safe Schools rainbow-colored badge alongside their school IDs.
The badge, part of a national initiative, helps school staff identify themselves as allies of LGBTQ students who might need the support of a trusted adult if they don’t feel safe or comfortable at school — whether the staff identifies as LGBT or not.
They’ve also helped raise the profile of New Dorp’s Gay-Straight Alliance which brings together LGBTQ students and others to provide a safe place to socialize and create a platform for racial, gender and economic justice.
The club went from a few students a decade ago to about 30 regulars. They collaborate with the Pride Center of Staten Island to bring activities to the school, like an annual LGBTQ prom, and they help organize the school’s Day of Silence, a national event bringing attention to anti-LGBTQ name calling, bullying and harassment in schools.
The club also just spends time hanging out with members of other clubs, like ping pong, salsa and softball, Colon said.
“We want to show we’re part of the community so we don’t feel isolated,” he said.
“The students have their own voice. They’re not afraid to speak up. When I was growing up, it was not that kind of environment on Staten Island, but nowadays kids will speak up.”
At the group’s weekly meetings, the students and their faculty advisors discuss situations that have come up at school that need to be addressed, Quintana explained.
“It’s more of a proactive approach rather than reactive,” she said.
“Mr. Colon and I are running around making sure that the students are all being treated equally and fairly and that we have that in place before anything were to happen. [A bullying] mentality is not accepted here. We wouldn’t tolerate that.”
Bullying and harassment often lead to increased absenteeism and a higher likelihood of dropping out, experts say. It also results in feelings of depression and mental health, with the risk of suicide among LGBTQ students higher than their peers.
New Dorp this year added a guidance counselor who did a training for students in connection with the “Dignity for All Students Act,” discussing anti-bullying approaches for the school that has a zero-tolerance policy.
Also, this year, Colon and Quintana helped conduct staff development, discussing the rights of LGBTQ students and making sure that the school’s workers understood how to work with transgender students to ensure they felt safe when it came to accessing bathrooms, locker rooms and discussing the correct choice of pronouns when addressing transgender students.
Quintana will attend a training next month in the Bronx for the OUT for Safe Schools initiative so that she will be able to conduct trainings herself at the school for staffers who want to wear the badge.
“It gives an extra level of security to students now that we have these visible allies throughout the building,” she said.
In the 2014 school year, the Department of Education distributed nearly 10,000 badges to city staffers for the OUT for Safe Schools initiative, which started in Los Angeles, officials said.
Despite efforts like New Dorp, however, schools are still struggling about how to address issues faced by LGBTQ students, many have said.
"There's still work to be done," Jared Fox, the DOE’s LGBT community liaison, told City Council members at a Wednesday hearing about LGBT bullying prevention efforts.
He said, for instance, he is focused on a multi-year effort to expand GSAs, which are also referred to as Gender and Sexuality Alliances, across the boroughs.
Having openly out professionals helps provide role models, especially for students who identify as LGBTQ, Quintana said.
Other ways to make students feel more included might involve changing dress policies or prom regulations or having anti-bullying policies with explicit guidance on safeguarding LGBTQ students, said Sterling Roberson, the United Federation of Teachers’ vice president for Career and Technical Education High Schools.
“Even the most understanding of educators can find themselves feeling unsure about how to best support their LGBTQ students,” Roberson said at the hearing, noting the union has also expanded professional development on LGBT issues.
“Every one of us has a role to play in creating an inclusive school climate. That work begins with building awareness and understanding, not just among students,but also among our colleagues and within ourselves.”