The National Day of Silence is set to return to some San Ramon Valley schools on Friday, but it arrives this year with an unprecedented endorsement from the school board in a show of support for students harassed because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
The student-led effort, held annually in schools locally and across the U.S., features some students taking a vow of silence for the day to bring attention to the verbal and physical bullying many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students and their allies face on campus, using their voice -- or lack there of -- to demonstrate the silencing effects of such harassment.
"No one should ever feel unsafe, disgraced or a sense of disrespect simply for being who they are," board member Denise Jennison said through tears minutes before the board unanimously adopted its first-ever Day of Silence resolution last month.
"And I will fight tirelessly ... to make sure that our students know that whoever they are, we love them and they deserve happiness, safety and an access to an education," she added.
The Day of Silence has been recognized at San Ramon Valley high schools and middle schools in previous years, but this marks the first time the school board adopted a resolution in support of students who choose to take part in the observance.
"My message is: Day of Silence changed my life. Day of Silence made me proud to be who I am," Dougherty Valley High senior Rachel Laventure said during the school board's emotional half-hour discussion in Danville on March 8.
"It encouraged me to come out and to be comfortable with my sexual identity ... and it was just this day of clarity," added Laventure, now co-president of the school's gay-straight alliance (GSA).
During the Day of Silence, some students carry signs stating their message, put tape over their mouths or wear similar colors or symbols, all while declining to talk until the end of the day when the silence is broken, often with a shout in unison and subsequent conversations about bullying and acceptance.
"It is not a protest. It is in fact a practice of empathy," said Gary Leveque, fine arts teacher at Charlotte Wood Middle School in Danville and a GSA faculty adviser.
"This resolution will have a profound impact across our district and will raise kids up who desperately need to be lifted up," Leveque told the board. "It is our one collective, collaborative opportunity as a district -- as an entire district -- to reach out, to extend our hand to the individuals that we refer to as silent voices. Those students who feel they have no voice."
In their resolution, board members declared support for students who choose to voluntarily take part in the Day of Silence, while also acknowledging they were not requiring any student or employee to participate.
The resolution states that the observance would not alter classroom instruction on Friday, but it encouraged teachers "to be thoughtful and sensitive as they create lesson plans." Students must contribute verbally in class if such participation is part of the required class lesson.
Lessons focused on LGBT awareness have been a source of debate at San Ramon's Windemere Ranch Middle School after school officials announced plans to hold an "Acceptance Week" all this week during the lead-up to the Day of Silence.
An online petition developed from parents opposed to the optional week-long activities, though the petition is no longer accessible on the host website, change.org.
As of Wednesday, 206 students had opted out of Windemere Ranch's "Acceptance Week" activities, which occur in the 27-minute academic prep period at the end of the school day, according to district spokeswoman Elizabeth Graswich. Non-participating students can either head home or go to the multipurpose room to do what they'd normally do during the period, such as study or complete homework.
In its Day of Silence resolution, the school board asserted "(the) district believes it is our obligation to promote mutual respect, tolerance and acceptance on all our campuses and to always intervene and stop bullying and hateful comments."
GSA student-leaders who spoke to the board in March said they hoped the resolution raises heightened awareness about what Day of Silence represents and educates non-participating students and community members.
Those unaware people, according to Dougherty Valley GSA co-president Kyle Doan, sometimes question the silent observance: "Why are they doing this? Is it just a gay thing? Why do they have to be so out about it? Why do they have to be so vocal about it -- even though, that's sort of ironic."
"What I wanted from this, " Doan added, "is that I want people to not necessarily understand, but to begin to understand. Because everyone has to start somewhere, and high school is a great place to open your mind up to different things. High school is great place to kind of expand your perspective."
Laventure added, "When the day comes and you see all these students participating and all of these staff encouraging this participation and your principal endorsing it, it's just this feeling of, 'Oh, OK, I'm in a safe environment. I have people who are going to support me.'"
Leveque said he hoped the resolution would also empower bullied students "to be your authentic self" and to "call out the bigots, call out the fear-based ignorance that is projected on us day after day."
The district-level endorsement will especially hit home with local LGBT students who have been shunned by their families and kicked out of their houses and onto friends' couches or the streets because of their identities, many with parents who tell them, "You'd be better off dead than gay," Leveque said.
For those students faced with isolation, depression or suicidal thoughts, seeing their peers and teachers show support during the Day of Silence provides a powerful message, according to Leveque.
"The message is: You matter," he added. "To take your life is not a choice we want to support. We are here for you. You are not alone."
"Six different students have said to me over the last 16 years, looked me in the eye and said, 'You saved my life,'" Leveque said. "We've saved lives ... and that, to me, is what the Day of Silence is first and foremost about."
Closing out the discussion, school board president Greg Marvel said, "It's taken a long time to get to where we are today, and the effort, the fight, is not over yet."
"I will not rest until every child -- and I think the rest of the board feels this way -- until every child can walk through our doors, wherever they are, whatever school ... and feel they're able to come and have an equal learning opportunity, an equal safe environment compared to every other child in the district," Marvel added.