COMMERCIAL-NEWS | ROBERT TOMLINSON - A view of a sticker and some of the t-shirts used as prizes during a holiday trivia game played by members of the Three Rivers Middle School Pride Coalition club during their meeting Dec. 16. The student-led club, which focuses on giving LGBTQ+ students and allies a safe place to talk about their situations with other students, began in October and has over two dozen regular members.

TR Middle School club gives LGBTQ+ students and allies a safe place

THREE RIVERS — On what turned out to be the final after-school afternoon of the 2021 calendar year on Thursday, Dec. 16, the Three Rivers Middle School’s Pride Coalition after-school club used their one-hour meeting time to have some fun at the end of the day.

The over two dozen members of the student-led club took part in a number of games, including a trivia game about Christmas movies and holiday specials with small prizes available for winning teams, as well as played a game of Silent Ball, a game of catch where one of the main rules was that participants needed to remain quiet while the ball was being tossed around.

The laid-back nature of this particular meeting is nothing new for the club, as activities such as these are usually interspersed with discussions about their days, positive or negative, group activities and other discussions, sometimes centered on the LGBTQ+ community.

“The students love that it is laid back, but also provides them an opportunity to learn more about their community,” Pride Coalition advisor and middle school science teacher Stacy LaRoy said in an email interview earlier this month. “They love the support they have from the staff volunteers and other students. They get to be themselves in a safe environment with no judgement or harassment.”

This kind of support, as well as the student comradery that has been built among the club members, has been a central theme of the relatively new club, which started operating in October as part of a program called the Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA), as well as giving those who identify as LGBTQ+ or an ally of the community a place to come together as friends.

“This club is a way for students that are allies and part of the LGBTQ+ community to feel welcome. It allows everyone that is participating a place to receive support, learn more about the community, and just spend time together,” LaRoy said. “We want it to be about building one another up and whether you are a part of the community or just an ally, there is a place for you here.”

LaRoy said the idea to start the club came at the end of the 2020-21 school year from her eighth-grade daughter. She said while her daughter didn’t identify as a member of the LGBTQ+ community but rather as an ally, her daughter wanted to have a place for a younger sibling of hers, who identified as nonbinary, to go after school when they started sixth grade.

The idea was pitched to Middle School Principal Jason Bingaman, who approved the club following the hiring of a new guidance counselor for the school, Aaron Hess, who is also an advisor to the club.

“Once Mr. Hess was hired, [my daughter] went to [Bingaman] again and received the approval,” LaRoy said. “She created the signs to hang around the school to advertise the meeting and once those were approved the next week, she held her first meeting.”

LaRoy said the first meeting was “amazing” and said it showed having such a club was “long overdue.”

“When she held the first meeting, it was amazing to see how excited the students were to meet other students just like them in grades 6-8,” LaRoy said. “It really showed that this group was long overdue and the students need to see that there are other students that are dealing with the same struggles they are.”

The growth of the club has been steady, as LaRoy said one or two new students join the club each week. The only requirement to be a member of the club is a signed parent/guardian permission slip, with Hess helping bridge the gap between students and families that may not be supportive of their students, whether or not they identify as LGBTQ+ or an ally, joining the club.

The group meets every week on Thursdays for one hour after school, with a number of activities that occur during the meeting, all of it run by the students themselves, with LaRoy and/or Hess there for support if needed. Meetings start with student discussion about how their week has gone, which LaRoy said can lead to “a great discussion and a way to better understand what the needs are of the group.” Following that are team-building activities to, as LaRoy said, “help reinforce the idea that they are in a safe space and anything that is said during the meeting stays in that space.”

“It is very laid back, but also structured to meet the needs of what the group needs,” LaRoy said. “If they need to vent about something or ask questions, then we focus on that. If they need time to just play games and listen to music, then we give them the time to do that.”

She said some of the activities done during a meeting depend on the week. For instance, during Transgender Awareness Week back in mid-November, the group did activities and discussions about the transgender community. Other times, she said there have been discussions about different LGBTQ+ role models and about resources for parent involvement and support.

The group briefly came under fire during November’s controversy surrounding Pride flags in Three Rivers Community Schools classrooms, as it was mentioned in a statement by the school district as one of the “external challenges” to the district levied by a parent. LaRoy said the students in the club were “very confused and upset” when the temporary mandate to remove Pride flags was originally handed down with “multiple students” reaching out to her, even those not in the club.

However, LaRoy said the students were “very positive” when a decision to lift the mandate was passed at the Dec. 6 Board of Education meeting.

“They were excited that it got passed and were able to put the flags back up,” LaRoy said.

Having the club be available as a safe space for those that identify as LGBTQ+ or an ally, LaRoy said, is “filling a need that has been missing in our district for a long time” to have a place that “allows them to be themselves.”

“Middle school years are some of the hardest years for any K-12 student. They are trying to figure out where they fit in with their peers socially and emotionally as well as trying to be successful academically. With social media and students having more access to phones and computers, there is even more pressure put on these kids,” LaRoy said. “By providing just this one hour a week, we are giving these students, who maybe don’t feel like they belong, or are still trying to figure themselves out, a place where they can feel accepted. We are providing them with resources and support that they did not know existed. Even if the students come and listen to music, play games, or just hang out, for that one hour they do not have to pretend to be anyone but themselves.”

LaRoy said she hopes the club will be available for years to come for current and future students, and hopes more staff members show their support as well for the club. Currently, LaRoy said she is working with Three Rivers High School to put together a similar club there so that those students still have that support group when they move up.

“Our focus for 6th-8th is the social aspect of the group and the hope is for 9th-12th to be a focus on real life experiences and getting into deeper material and conversations that our middle school students are not quite ready for yet,” LaRoy said.

Overall, LaRoy said the club is one way to show students, both LGBTQ+ and allies, that they are accepted in their school community.

“We really want students to know that as a district, we support you and we want to provide a safe environment for everyone,” LaRoy said.

Robert Tomlinson can be reached at 279-7488 ext. 22 or robert@threeriversnews.com.

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