Invasive and vile anti-gay social media posts by students targeting specific teachers in the Ravena-Coeymans-Selkirk school district has galvanized the teachers union to press administrators to take action.
A video maligning and ridiculing one gay teacher was posted in the fall, and malicious TikTok videos later created in the spring were directed at two other teachers for their alleged sexuality. The videos called the teachers derogatory names, said gays should not be teaching, made crude comments, and equated being gay with being a pedophile. The perpetrators assumed one of the identities of the teachers in spreading the misinformation.
The union-driven response plan included assemblies, held in the spring and again this past week, to discuss cyberbullying and harassment against individuals and groups, including LGBTQ+, minorities, immigrants and people with disabilities.
The RCS Teachers Association, led by Matt Miller, also advocated for the use of Restorative Justice. That involved the students who posted the anti-gay comments sitting with the teachers they maligned, and with school social worker Jessica Doerr, their parents, and administrators to discuss the situation.
“There were 1,500 people who viewed the (spring) TikToks,” said teacher Abby Retzlaff, RCSTA member.
As the target of the October TikTok, she knows how distressing it can be to be shamed and ridiculed. A student had taken a photo of her while she was teaching remotely, and then put her in drag queen outfits as a man, along with other made up situations.
“I was shocked. I was hurt. I was embarrassed,” she said, noting that she wondered: “Why is (the student) lashing out at me? This is a serious situation.”
Retzlaff has all three students responsible for the two separate incidents in her eighth grade classes.
How to Support Our LGBTQ and Allied Students
Thursday, June 17, 4-5 p.m. (EDT)
Please join members of the NYSUT LGBTQ Committee, and allies, to learn how to start a Gay Straight Alliance in your school. Educators, students and parents will discuss why GSAs are important and offer tips for establishing them. Join us online Thursday, June 17, 4-5 p.m. (EDT)! Zoom registration is required to participate. Learn more and register.
Retzlaff said that when administrators put off taking action to address high schoolers, she helped form an anti-bullying committee after the second incident with a dozen other colleagues. The educators joined with social workers Doerr and Kimberly Mathias, and school resource officers who explained possible criminal repercussions of this type of social media activity, including aggravated harassment. Students were also told how these types of posts not only cause harm to the victims, but also can affect their own chances at getting into a good college or getting a good job.
The students who created the posts found the social media accounts of teachers’ family members and tagged them to bring their attention to the cruel videos.
This week’s assemblies for the eighth graders was led by the National Coalition Building Institute, which focuses on anti-bullying, diversity and inclusion. High schoolers from other regions shared with RCS students their experiences facing harm and discrimination.
Miller said administrators would receive sensitivity training this summer in how to handle and respond to similar violations.
The RCS TA also purchased T-shirts for its Friday dress down days with the union logo and Pride colors to show support and solidarity for their maligned colleagues, and for LGBTQ+ students.
“If they’re doing it to teachers, what about students?” Miller asked. “The shirts are to support staff and show kids that they have allies here. It’s a safe place. The message we send matters.”
Since the video incidents, students from the Gay Straight Alliance have come forward with concerns, said Retzlaff.
As the school has been making daily announcements related to June as Pride Month, one student used a personal Instagram account to decry the use of this time for those whom he felt did not deserve a month of recognition, and included offensive term for members of the LGBTQ+ community.
The problem does not only fester in school.
“It’s a community issue,” said Miller, who teachers AP and Regents biology and also serves as an Albany County Legislator.
Miller noted how a former county legislator from Coeyman’s resigned earlier this year after making comments that were recorded in which the lawmaker said that all gays should be put on an island so they can disappear after 40 years.
“You don't have to agree, but you need to be respectful and tolerant,” Miller said. “In the past, we had some severe racial divisions and had a few tough years dealing with that.”