MONTPELIER -- Vermont has restored funding for a gay rights group to run an anti-harassment program in the schools, 12 years after the money was cut during the fight over civil unions.
The state Department of Education, soon to be known as the Agency of Education, plans to send $2,000 in each of the next two years to the group Outright Vermont. The Burlington-based organization advocates for the rights of gays, lesbians and other sexual minorities and runs anti-bullying programs in schools.
"This is a civil union wrong righted," said Melissa Murray, Outright’s executive director.
She said the funding "is key to our continued work with Vermont schools, to ensure that bullying, taunting, harassment and other forms of cruelty are not tolerated."
The program received state funding in 1998 and 1999 but the funding was eliminated in 2000 during an acrimonious debate in the Legislature over what ended up as the nation’s first law establishing civil unions -- legal recognition for gay and lesbian couples, said Llu Mulvaney-Stanak, Outright’s director of development. Vermont passed same-sex marriage in 2009.
The group’s work in schools has been funded mainly with private funds, she said.
Education Commissioner Armando Vilaseca called the $2,000 annual payment "more of a symbolic gesture that says we care about all kids." He said Outright presentations during his time as principal of Essex High
"This is not about the money," Mulvaney-Stanak said. "It’s about ... the principle of understanding all LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered) students and allies have a right to a safe place and that the work of Outright Vermont is important to the lives of the young people of Vermont."
She said Outright personnel sometimes visit schools where bullying has occurred, but also do "preventative" visits. They talk with students about respecting and appreciating one another’s differences and giving students skills to intervene when they see bullying. Interventions can include speaking up or telling someone later.
"We don’t want anyone to try to be a hero," she said.
Murray credited the leadership of Vilaseca and Gov. Peter Shumlin with restoration of the funding.
Shumlin this year won passage of legislation that turns the education department with a commissioner who reports to an independent board to an Agency of Education with a secretary who reports to the governor.
Vilaseca said the change was independent of the decision to restore funding. A message left for Shumlin spokeswoman Susan Allen was not immediately returned.