Omaha South High School had a Gay-Straight Alliance student club when Ferial Pearson started teaching English there. Just one person belonged.
Pearson signed up as faculty adviser and, nine years later, nearly 150 students, at least half of whom are straight, are affiliated with the club designed to build understanding and a safer environment for students who are lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender or questioning their sexuality.
Pearson helped start a local Pride Prom, a spring dance at Omaha’s First United Methodist Church to which students can bring same-sex dates, which has grown to draw more than 300 students from many schools and cities. She also advises South’s Unity Club, a diversity group.
For her work, Pearson was honored Friday night as national educator of the year by the national Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. She and her husband, Daniel, traveled to California for the award ceremony.
Next week, the mother of two will be back at South, teaching English and helping the Gay-Straight Alliance students plan their first big event of this school year. Ally Week, she said, “is to encourage straight students to come out and stop the bullying.”
The award and South’s Ally Week activity were in the works before a string of recent high-profile suicides across the nation by high school and college students who had been bullied over their sexual orientation. But the timing is worth noting, said Warren Blumenfeld, an Iowa State University educator who studies the issues.
“Teachers like her are saving lives,” said Blumenfeld, an associate professor of curriculum and instruction.
Pearson, 32, was born and raised in Kenya. She moved to the United States to attend college at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota. Pearson met her future husband, a native of Ralston, in Minnesota. She and the Omaha Public Schools found each other at a job fair.
Pearson traces her Gay-Straight Alliance work to her youth in Africa and to her experiences in college. She said she witnessed a lot of prejudice and discrimination against people of Indian heritage, such as her family, and against the poor.
At Gustavus Adolphus, she volunteered for a student-led diversity conference called Building Bridges. That’s where she became interested in lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues.
“My whole focus with education has always been geared to social justice,” Pearson said this week while eating Salisbury steak during her lunch duty.
She described seeing injustice in how students were called names, harassed and bullied for their sexual orientation, and how they felt they had nowhere to turn for understanding and support.
“The whole reason I do what I do is because, if you are a kid, you can’t learn anything if you don’t feel safe,” Pearson said. “Regardless of religious opinions or anything else, people should feel safe and welcome and be respected.”
Currently, 32 Nebraska high schools and 64 Iowa high schools have Gay-Straight Alliance clubs registered with the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, an advocacy group that helps form alliances.
South’s club has grown each year.
It meets Thursdays after school in Pearson’s third-floor classroom. She has a “rainbow corner” with pamphlets and posters of community resources and messages for acceptance and against harassment.
The students discuss issues. They plan activities. They have regular movie nights. They just hang out, among friends.
Pearson told of one student whose father was imprisoned, whose mother abandoned him and who was badly bullied all through middle school.
“He told me, ‘Miss, I live for Thursdays. I finally feel like I have a family,’” Pearson said.
Focus on the Family, a national evangelical Christian advocacy group based in Colorado, doesn’t have a complaint with Gay-Straight Alliance student groups, Candi Cushman said. She’s an education analyst for CitizenLink, a policy arm of Focus on the Family.
“They have a free speech right to form clubs, and we recognize that,” said Cushman, who said she is not familiar with Pearson or what’s happening in Nebraska schools.
She said Focus on the Family “wants all students to be protected from bullying, including those who identify as gay and lesbian.”
“Our concern is with the materials that are distributed to students that essentially transform them into lobbyists for GLSEN’s adult political advocacy causes,” Cushman said.
Pearson said she’s not out to change anyone’s opinions.
Several members of the Gay-Straight Alliance also belong to the South’s Student Venture club, a student-led Christian club. They include seniors Shay Valentine and April Smith, 17.
Valentine said Pearson and the club have improved the school atmosphere, not just for homosexual or questioning students, but for everyone.
Pearson does that by example, and by the way she teaches, Valentine said.
“She shows you that being accepting and respecting people of all beliefs is really important,” Valentine said. The teacher challenges them to consider all sides, and try to understand the reasons for opposing perspectives.
That’s not just in the after-school clubs, but in her classes, said William Kyle Jensen, 18, a senior who’s not in the Gay-Straight Alliance. She’s hysterically funny and tells great stories, he said, but her expectations are high. In writing exercises, she urges students to research and write about things they care about deeply.
“She says the moment you stop caring is when things stop changing and bad things start happening,” Valentine said.
Pearson teaches students not to idly stand by when they see name-calling and other harassment, Smith said, and models how to go about stopping those things.
It’s common, the students said, that when younger students start harassing somebody or using derogatory terms, older students say, “That’s not cool. We don’t do that here.”
The students said they hadn’t witnessed physical bullying or direct harassment recently, and weren’t aware of cyberbullying.
Nationally, those things are very common, according to Warren Blumenfeld’s and other research.
In a recent survey of self-identified non-heterosexual subjects from 11 to 22 years old, 54 percent reported having been victims of cyberbullying in the previous 30 days, Blumenfeld said. Cyberbullying includes electronic distribution of humiliating photos, dissemination of false or private information, or targeting victims in cruel online polls.
At South High, Valentine and Smith said, what they hear about most often is name-calling and derogatory language. That includes the currently popular phrase, “That’s so gay” referring to something considered stupid or not cool.
Students hear that particularly among freshmen, Smith said, so Gay-Straight Alliance members plan to talk to freshman homerooms about that phrase and other derogatory language.
There occasionally has been controversy about the Gay-Straight Alliance at South, said Principal Cara Riggs.
“It’s an after-school activity, and it’s a place where any student is invited to come and talk about things in a respectful way,” Riggs said.
Pearson, she said, “exemplifies what we want our whole message to be to all of our students. We teach respect and we model respect for all students.”
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