High school students form South Summit’s first Gay-Straight Alliance | ParkRecord.com

High school students form South Summit’s first Gay-Straight Alliance

Jane Burns, seated on the right, receives a commendation from members of the newly founded South Summit High School Gay-Straight Alliance at a celebratory picnic Oct. 6. Studies show high schools with established GSAs have lower suicide rates for all their students.
Photo courtesy of Jane Burns

There’s a new club at South Summit High School this fall, and it’s one students have been trying to start for at least a couple years.

The Gay-Straight Alliance held its first official meeting earlier this month in the high school auditorium with about half of its 15 members in attendance.

The club’s president, senior Marley Smith, said they wanted to build a safe and accepting space for their fellow students.

“I never really felt like I had a place in school before meeting other LGBT students,” Smith said. “Hopefully this club can be that safe and supportive place for other kids as well.”

The details are still being settled, but members envision meeting every other week or so and working on projects to spread awareness and organizing field trips. But the benefits may go beyond safe spaces and community building: A 2014 study found that high schools that have established Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) have lower suicide rates, while other researchers have found a link between GSAs and decreased rates of bullying.

South Summit High School, in Kamas, is in a region more politically conservative than Park City, where a GSA club has existed at Park City High School since the 1990s. The reaction so far has been generally positive, its members and adviser said.

Alex Fryer, a student founder along with McKenzie Rider and Smith, said reaction has been welcoming and the group has more members than she had anticipated.

Devin Davis, the group’s faculty adviser and a choir and theater teacher in the South Summit School District, said he has not experienced pushback and described the South Summit community as accepting.

The club’s kickoff was at the high school’s Opportunity Night in early September. Smith said reaction to the club’s booth was mixed, however, with some attendees coming up to the group and thanking them for starting it and others reading their sign and then avoiding eye contact.

No club members have reported increased incidents of bullying, though Davis said “kids will be kids.”

“Is there going to be pushback from individual students? Maybe. But as a group, I don’t think so at all,” he said.

He added high schoolers are still figuring themselves out, regardless of their sexual identity.

Davis said he has received support from parents, high school Principal Wade Woolstenhulme and district Superintendent Shad Sorenson.

Park City High School’s GSA adviser, Mary Purzycki, said she was so happy when she heard South Summit was starting a GSA she almost started dancing. Members of the Park City GSA attended a picnic Oct. 6 celebrating the South Summit club’s founding.

Purzycki said that in her time at PCHS, the community has grown more accepting of LGBT people.

“Kids don’t say things like ‘That’s so gay’ anymore,” she said. She added that bullying has decreased dramatically, though it hasn’t disappeared entirely.

“I’m not going to say it’s gone, but it’s gone 80 percent of the time,” she said. “(They’ll) always catch a little brunt of something, but they know teachers are going to have their back.”

While the first official meeting of the South Summit GSA was Oct. 1, members of the group came together much earlier during a series of meetings at the Summit County Library’s Kamas branch organized by Kamas resident Jane Burns.

Burns said she moved to Utah four years ago and loved it, but she soon discovered there was a dark side hiding behind the state’s beauty: the teen suicide rate.

According to the Utah Department of Education, the state has consistently ranked in the bottom five nationwide in terms of having the most significant mental health concerns. The Utah Department of Health found the teen suicide rate increased 141% from 2011 to 2015.

Burns referenced the 2014 study that examined 2008 data from students in British Columbia and found suicide rates to be lower in schools with GSAs than those without. The study found it was true for everyone, regardless of sexual identity, though the effect was smaller on some groups than others, and helped LGBT significantly.

One finding in the report is that heterosexual boys in schools with GSAs in existence for more than three years were about half as likely to attempt suicide as heterosexual boys in schools without the clubs.

Burns said she was hiking one day when she resolved to set up a group or club to try to help area kids. She called it Mirror Mirror, and held regular meetings at the library with guest speakers but struggled to make inroads in the youth community.

With the help of Mary Christa Smith, who is Summit County’s Communities That Care coordinator and Marley Smith’s mom, Burns said they were able to start attracting the younger crowd and the effort gained momentum.

Fryer said the group tried to get a GSA off the ground toward the end of last school year, but weren’t able to find an adviser. That changed this summer after a meeting in Sorenson’s office.

Those present during that initial meeting say Sorenson called an assistant principal at the high school and said the club was going to happen and to work on finding an adviser. The superintendent downplayed his involvement in the club’s formation and instead gave credit to the kids who started it. He said he’s glad when students advocate for a cause and fill a need when they see it.

“To me, adolescence and education is hard enough just as it is,” he said. “If a person becomes fearful of being bullied because of their lifestyle, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation — it’s important barriers are broken down so people can feel secure.”

Burns hopes the club will reveal community support that has been just beneath the surface.

“When kids stand up and say, ‘Hey, here I am, here is the authentic me,’ it gives the opportunity for other people to really be kind when they were afraid to be kind before.”

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