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Over 600 educators empowered at CESCaL conference

(This article was originally published HERE in SDGLN media partner Gay San Diego.)

This year’s fourth annual national educator conference focused on LGBTQIA youth may have been packed with celebrity honorees, but it was the 600 educators, school counselors and national LGBT leaders in attendance that were the real heroes of the weekend.

Themed “Supporting Students – Saving Lives,” the conference is put on each year by San Diego State University’s school counseling graduate program, specifically its nonprofit, the Center for Excellence in School Counseling and Leadership (CESCaL). This year’s conference was held Friday – Sunday, Feb. 15 – 17.

“I am very proud of the school counseling graduate students who devoted many hours making this conference so successful,” said Trish Hatch, director of the program and CESCaL. “Their experience provides invaluable knowledge, attitudes and skills for supporting LGBTQIA youth in schools after they graduate.”

Its inaugural event in 2010 drew 150 attendees from four different states. Since then, the conference has grown considerably each year, not only with regards to attendance, but also sponsorships, visibility and recognition within the national education community.

Hatch, founder of the conference and directly involved in its production for the first several years, last year turned the operational reigns over to Vincent “Vinnie” Pompei, this year’s project director and conference chair.

She said watching Pompei grow the conference to its current state makes her “very proud,” and was quick to note that her original idea to host the conference would have never gotten off the ground without the committed support of Ric Hovda, dean of the college of education at SDSU. Hatch said Hovda continues to be a staunch supporter and underwriter of the conference.

Supporting Students – Saving Lives is three days of celebrity and educator honorees, presentations, interactive panel discussions, networking, and intensive breakout sessions, all designed to give educators, nurses and counselors of K-12 schools the tools they need to best advocate for their LGBTQIA students. On the final day, 100 students are brought in to take part as well.

This year, out MSNBC anchor Thomas Roberts flew in to accept his award for Excellence in Media and Journalism in person and stayed to moderate an interactive panel of national leaders in education on Saturday.

The featured speaker of Friday night’s opening plenary, keynote and awards ceremony was Michael Yudin, acting assistant secretary of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services for the United States Department of Education (DOE).

Yudin, who shared that he and his husband raised two daughters, represents a division within the DOE with a mission that includes the promotion of inclusion and equity for those with disabilities, something that directly aligns with LGBT issues. He offered resources to the group and emphasized the support coming directly from the Obama Administration.

“Public schools have an obligation to treat all students equally in a socially just manner. It’s not only providing them physical safety, its actually making sure that they are emotionally safe and they have self esteem and that they are nurtured to thrive,” he said.

Yudin offered the educators in attendance a charter that included guidelines such as creating a positive school climate, being proactive and visible to LGBT youth, identifying safe spaces in the counselor’s office, and encouraging the development of gay-straight alliances (GSA). He also told them to educate themselves in student mental health, and how to support and identify changes in behavior.

“I need you to know you are not alone. You have partners in the Obama Administration and the federal government,” he said.

The highlight of the evening was Betty DeGeneres, Ellen’s mother who accepted her award for Excellence in Advocacy for Safe, Welcoming & Inclusive Schools, in part for the recent public service announcement (PSA) she filmed for PFLAG. DeGeneres has been an active member of the organization for over 15 years.

“I enjoyed my career as a speech therapist but I think I would have loved being a school counselor,” DeGeneres said to rousing applause. “Although even with all the training I would have gotten fired, because I would have wanted to call those bullies the little jackasses they are.”

DeGeneres said she never saw Ellen as a bullied teen, and that it was a friend who pointed out that the advertisers and executives who temporarily shut down Ellen’s career when she came out in 1997 were, in fact, bullying.

Actor George Takei, who since publicly coming out in 2005 has been an outspoken advocate for the LGBT community, was also honored. Takei took special interest in the recent “Don’t Say Gay” legislation in Tennessee that prohibits acknowledgement or discussion of homosexuality, especially in schools. He recently made a PSA called “It’s okay to be Takei.” Conference attendees saw the humorous PSA before he received his award.

The speaker session ended with Adam Bouska and Jeff Parshley, co-founders of the NOH8 Campaign, addressing the crowd about their photo project that is a silent protest against hate, and encouraged attendees to become part of the campaign. They said the photos and the NOH8 stickers “send a very strong message without even saying anything” to LGBTQIA youth, and offer them a safe space.

On Saturday, attendees heard from more local and national education leaders before spending the day in breakout sessions. The keynote speaker, Secretary-Treasurer of the National Education Association Becky Pringle, received a standing ovation for her remarks. Pringle also later participated on a panel with other national education leaders.

“Schools should be a sanctuary for learning rather than a fortress of fear,” she said.

Council President Todd Gloria and Assemblymember Toni Atkins both addressed the lunchtime assembly, prior to the start of the panel.

That evening, attendees were invited to take part in a “Cultural Plunge” around Hillcrest. They were driven through the neighborhood, took a tour of The LGBT Center and walked along University Avenue, socializing and patronizing local businesses.

Though many attendees and volunteer graduate students said the weekend “changed their lives,” the true beneficiaries are all the LGBTQIA students at the schools across the country that were represented at the conference, which was Hatch and Pompei’s original goal.

“The biggest highlight for me was hearing so many of the educator attendees [tell me] how empowered and inspired they were and how they couldn’t wait to get back to work and create needed change,” Pompei said.

Morgan M. Hurley is Contributing Editor of SDGLN, Editor of San Diego Downtown News and Assistant Editor of Gay San Diego and San Diego Uptown News.