Archive for the ‘Latest News’ Category

Teaching Sex Ed Just Got Easier

By | Latest News

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Each year, in classrooms around the country, teachers of all kinds are tasked with implementing the National Sexuality Education Standards – a list of seven learning objectives established by leading health officials, researchers and educators in 2011. Yet many of those educators continue to struggle to find engaging and effective tools to teach what can often feel like a complicated topic.

That’s where Straightlaced comes in.

“One thing that continues to impress us about Straightlaced and the accompanying curriculum is that there is nothing else like it out there. We can’t think of anyone else who is addressing gender in such a meaningful way with young people. And gender must be addressed if we’re going to make real change when it comes to dealing with sexism, homophobia and transphobia.”
– Lucinda Holt, Director of Communications, Answer, the national sexual education training organization

In an increasingly diverse world, where harassment, bullying and relationship violence are all too common experiences for high schoolers, teachers need to be ahead of the curve when it comes to discussing gender and sexuality. So we’ve aligned our award-winning documentary film-based curriculum and resource Guide with the national sex ed standards, to make it easier for high school educators to engage their students!

“We believe firmly, as these standards outline, that addressing the constraints of gender norms will help all students live healthier lives.” said Debra Chasnoff, founder of GroundSpark. “Aligning Straightlaced with these standards is about working towards achieving that goal.”

Through our alignment we’ve outlined the specific activities, video clips and lesson plans that can be used to meet the requirements for various grade levels. And because everything connects to our award-winning youth-focused film, we know these interactive lessons are especially likely to resonate with teenagers.

We also know that we can’t afford to wait any longer to implement these ideas and improve sexuality education.

According to a 2011 Dove study, 72% of teen girls feel enormous pressure to live up to society’s beauty ideals. While the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network reports that 85% of LGBT youth in the U.S. are verbally harassed at school each year. These factors can lead to diminished self-esteem, absenteeism and lower grades.

GroundSpark is committed to improving school environments for youth everywhere, and our Straightlaced Curriculum and Resource Guide, now aligned with the National Sexuality Education Standards, is a powerful tool to help us all create safer, more inclusive classrooms.

Download the guidelines here.


Joining Forces With Documentary Film “Read Me Differently”

By | Latest News


GroundSpark is proud to partner with Read Me Differently, an award-winning documentary directed by Sarah Entine, MSW. We’ve just helped Sarah launch the Read Me Differently Initiative, a campaign to spread understanding of how learning disabilities (LD) affect life experiences outside of the classroom.

Read Me Differently is a brave and intimate film that reframes how we talk about learning disabilities, and through this initiative we are working with Sarah to open up more conversations about the crucial underlying issues reflected in the film.

Read Me Differently makes it patently clear that learning differences are much more than simply ‘academic’ challenges,” says GroundSpark’s president, Debra Chasnoff. “We’re honored to be partnering with Sarah Entine to bring more attention to the social, psychological, and spiritual dimensions of grappling with LD as well.”

We are working with organizations involved in education, parenting support, mental health and social service fields to transform this conversation. The Read Me Differently Initiative lays out six core beliefs – ranging from the importance of widespread awareness to the value of social-emotional learning – that can help families, educators, and service providers understand LD beyond their potential impact at school.


The RMD Initiative recommends action steps that organizations and individuals can take to further this vision, including calling on all family members to obtain the education and training to understand how LD affects the family system, and encouraging teachers to be better trained to deal with the spectrum of LD their students may have. 

Over the past 20 years, GroundSpark has pioneered a long-term social change strategy that pairs documentary film distribution with political and community organizing and professional development on how to use their films to make a difference.

“This is one of the first times GroundSpark has brought its experience of harnessing the power of documentary films to ignite change to work on behalf of an outside producer. I’m very excited to have GroundSpark by my side as an organizing partner.”
– Sarah Entine, MSW, Director of Read Me Differently

Learn more about the Read Me Differently Initiative here.

Staff Training & Community Workshops from Respect for All Project

By | Events, It's Elementary, Latest News, Let's Get Real, Respect For All Project, Straightlaced, That's A Family!

classroom2School’s in full swing and so is our program to help schools ensure community wide respect for every student.

Our highly skilled facilitators help open up dialogue, expand staff expertise and strengthen community support for:

  • Cultivating a safe school climate
  • Preventing violence
  • Addressing bias-based bullying
  • Closing the achievement gap
  • Improving emotional health
  • Welcoming family diversity
  • Promoting character education
  • Empowering youth to develop positive identity around issues of gender, race and sexual orientation
  • Tackling homophobia through LGBT inclusive education

Learn more

Respect for All Project workshops are centered around our highly acclaimed award-winning documentary films, including Straightlaced—How Gender’s Got Us All Tied Up, Let’s Get Real, It’s Elementary—Talking About Gay Issues in School, It’s STILL Elementary, and That’s a Family!

Every workshop ends with a concrete action plan, customized for your school or organization—because we know you don’t just want to talk, you want to act. Participants leave with the tools, including curriculum, for individuals and groups to create more safety and opportunity for all young people.

  • Contact us for a preliminary call so we can understand your needs and suggest an appropriate workshop for your school, district or association. Some partial subsidies may be available thanks to the generosity of our funders and donor community.
  • See where we have trained.
  • Learn about our impact.
  • Contact us about a professional development workshop or community forum today.

Straightlaced Goes to the Head of the Class GSA Network’s Study Proves Inclusive Curriculum Makes Schools Safer

By | blog, It's Elementary, Latest News, LGBT, Straightlaced

IE_templateimgMany years ago when Helen Cohen and I were producing It’s Elementary—Talking About Gay Issues in School, we came up with a list of all the reasons why it is important for educators to find age-appropriate ways to incorporate respectful discussion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people into K-12 curricula.

We knew it was critical to help those young people who were in the process of coming out or who would some day. It was important for all the children who have LGBT family members to feel like they were included in the school community.  It was essential knowledge that today’s students need to function well in our diverse society.

But the bottom line, number one reason was that talking about gay issues and people in school is absolutely essential is creating a safe learning environment.

Now, there is a study that proves that reasoning is true. Screen Shot 2013-01-08 at 1.55.49 PM

The report, “Implementing Lessons That Matter: The Impact of LGBTQ-Inclusive Curriculum on Student Safety, Well-Being, and Achievement,” is distributed by one of GroundSpark’s longtime partners, the Gay Straight Alliance Network.

“The report clearly shows that LGBTQ-inclusive lessons increase school safety,” says Stephen T. Russell, an author of the report and University of Arizona Professor. “At a time when there is more concern than ever about LGBTQ bullying and safety in schools, this research confirms that students need to see themselves reflected in lessons. When they do, they feel safer and more connected at school – and the school climate is healthier for everyone.”

The research primarily took place in California after the passage of the FAIR Education Act, which updated state education guidelines to end the exclusion of LGBT people and people with disabilities from social studies and history classes.

Despite the many obstacles teachers still face in being able to successfully implement this kind of curricula, the results were impressive.

The research also showed that while any type of LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum in any single subject increases perception of school safety and support for LGBTQ people and issues, a broad approach to implementation across the school institution likely has the greatest impact on school climate.


One of the types of lessons that were evaluated was Straightlaced—How Gender’s Got Us All Tied Up (another one of our films and its accompanying curriculum).

“LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum can substantially improve safety, engagement, learning, academic achievement, self-esteem, and success in school and beyond,” says Hilary Burdge, the research project manager. “Our study points to Straightlaced as an outstanding resource—in fact, the school in our study that yielded the most positive results included Straightlaced as one of its implementation tools.”

We are encouraged as we see the numbers of high schools starting to use Straightlaced continue to grow. And we are heartened to see the message that “teaching about LGBTQ issues is an fundamental to safe school learning environments” is being broadcast once again through this study. Thank you GSA Network. It is elementary.

Honoring a Trailblazer, Honoring our History

By | blog, It's Elementary, It's STILL Elementary, Latest News

Kim Westheimer, Director of Welcoming Schools at the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, guest blogs for GroundSpark following an event last week hosted by HRC and the St. Louis Chapters of the Anti-Defamation League and the National Conference on Community and Justice. The event took place at the Missouri History Museum:

Too often, we get so busy doing our work that we forget to acknowledge the trailblazers who helped lead the way. I was   reminded of this at a May 10th event at the Missouri History museum. Two films were featured: the new Welcoming Schools Film, What Do You Know? Six to Twelve Year-Olds Talk About Gays and Lesbians and the film It’s STILL Elementary, which chronicles the making and impact of the film, It’s Elementary.

It’s Elementary was a trailblazer. When the film came out in 1998, I was working for the Massachusetts Department of Education. A colleague of mine got a preview copy of the film to use for a national conference she organized for representatives from other Departments of Education. The audience at this conference was stunned by the power of It’s Elementary. We all knew this was something special and that it would be a crucial tool for years to come. The longevity of It’s Elementary’s impact is documented in the film It’s STILL Elementary.

One powerful aspect of the newer film is the clips of children who were featured in the original film paired with interviews of them 10 years later. In one segment, a child has a jaw-dropping moment when she learns that Elton John – familiar to her as the composer of Lion King music – is gay. Ten years later, and a student at Drury University in Springfield, MO, she can’t believe how stunned she was, but she remembers how much she gained from these lessons about inclusion and respect.

It's Elementary

So in St. Louis at the Missouri History Museum, just a few hours away from Springfield, MO, I wondered how many other students all across the country had their perspectives broadened by educators inspired by the work of filmmakers Debra Chasnoff and Helen Cohen. How many of them went on, like other students featured in the film, to start GSAs, to become youth workers committed to standing up for LGBT students, or to come out, knowing that they were not alone?  Wherever they are, they are tied to a movement of social change, a movement that can take inspiration in the words of Cezar Chavez:

“Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed. You cannot uneducate the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore.”

Your Story Needed for Civil Rights Commission Report

By | Latest News, LGBT

GroundSpark has learned that the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights will turn its attention to peer-to-peer bullying, harassment, and violence in schools this May—and your stories are wanted. Beginning with a day-long briefing on peer-to-peer violence in K-12 public schools on May 13th, the Commission’s report will examine bullying and other types of peer-to-peer violence where students are targeted due to their race, national origin, religion, disability, gender, or LGBT-status. According to Commissioner Roberta Achtenberg, the event breaks new ground as the first time the Civil Rights Commission will host a hearing on an LGBT-related issue.

GroundSpark will have the opportunity to submit testimony, along with many experts in social sciences, mental health, education and law. Commissioner Achtenberg is making a special effort to encourage those touched by peer-to-peer violence targeted against LGBT youth (and those perceived to be so) to share their stories. The collected stories will form a permanent record built from the contributions of people across the country, and these personal narratives will be an invaluable resource, aiding the Commission in understanding the nature, pervasiveness, geographic spread, and negative outcomes of such violence. Stories shared in this way will also help to set the stage for expert testimony and filings from professional perspectives.

Stories should be submitted in writing with the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights for inclusion in the public record. The Commission defines “inter-student violence,” as any verbal and physical assaults, teasing, bullying and any other form of harassment. The letters need not be formal or in any particular format. Each author is encouraged to write in their own voice and to tell their story in the terms in which it was experienced.  The Commission should learn of the personalities of the kids and families involved, the way things happened (or are still happening), what types of people were involved (other students, school staff, and/or others), and what impact these experiences are having on the student and for the rest of the family. Thoughts about what types of intervention might be helpful to address the causes could be important as well.

In order to humanize this issue as strongly as possible, families and individuals who are comfortable doing so are encouraged to attach a picture to the front of the letter. For those contributors who are not comfortable sharing their identity openly, they should use at least one initial to identify themselves and any people relevant to their stories since the letters will be submitted to the public record. It would be extremely helpful if writers who are maintaining anonymity could at least identify a region of a state in which they live (“Northern Maine,” or “Twin Cities Minnesota,” for example).

GroundSpark has been privileged over the years to see the power of your stories in action. We encourage stories about all forms of harassment, bullying and violence.  Don’t be afraid to make concrete suggestions about how schools, parents, teachers and communities should respond—the Commission can learn from what went wrong as well as what went right.

The Commission’s final report, to be issued in September 2011, will discuss student needs, promising programs, jurisdictional issues, and the enforcement efforts of the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice. Stories of how students, families, schools and communities are impacted by peer-to-peer bullying, harassment and violence are critical to the report’s effectiveness.

Letters should be sent, if possible, by May 1, 2011 for introduction into the Commission’s record in advance of the May 13 hearing in D.C. (the public record will remain open for 15 days following the hearing). The letter itself should be addressed to:

Kim Tolhurst, Esq., Acting General Counsel
U.S. Commission on Civil Rights
624 Ninth St., N.W., Washington, D.C.  20001

Please note that the envelope should be addressed and mailed to Commissioner Achtenberg’s special assistant, Alec Duell at:

c/o Alec Deull
3102 Krueger Road North, Tonawanda, NY  14120

School District Does the Right Thing:
Vallejo Won’t Let Students “Opt-Out” of Anti-Bullying Curriculum

By | blog, Latest News, Let's Get Real, Respect For All Project, Straightlaced, That's A Family!

Last night the Vallejo Unified School District 30 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge, voted 4 – 1 to continue its anti-bullying curriculum for students in its elementary, middle, and high schools.

The curriculum was put in place as the result of a settlement negotiated by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California on behalf of a lesbian student in the district who was being harassed —by faculty and staff at her school—because of her sexual orientation.

High School Student Takes On Anti-Gay Harassment...And WinsThe district agreed to bring age-appropriate lessons about diversity and standing up against bullying and name-calling into every classroom, and also to provide training to all faculty and staff about anti-gay harassment and discrimination. GroundSpark’s films and educational resources are being used at all grade levels to help implement this plan.

At a contentious board meeting last night, parents were split in their opinions about the curriculum. Many, including the mother of the young woman who had been harassed, applauded the district’s efforts to prevent further harassment.

I saw how it affected her,” Sheree Hamilton said in reference to her daughter, Roxanne. “She fell into a deep depression. She didn’t laugh anymore. She fell behind in school.”

“Teenagers, gay teenagers committing suicide: why? Because this education was not there,” said another parent, Franklin Hernandez.

As has been true in other school districts, the Pacific Justice Institute, a conservative activist organization opposed to any discussion of LGBT people in schools, played a role in organizing parents to oppose the district’s anti-bullying work.

At last night’s meeting, some speakers objected to the district having a curriculum that acknowledges families headed by gay or lesbian parents, or curriculum for teenage students that discusses anything related to sexual orientation or gender norms. Others claimed that the district’s implementation of this curriculum without giving them the option to “opt-out” their children from the lessons constitutes “bullying” by the district.

Despite this vocal opposition, the school board members stood behind the anti-bullying curriculum.

We are very proud that the district is using our Respect for All Project resources to help implement its initiative. Elementary school students watch That’s a Family! which introduces respectful awareness of what it means to grow up in families headed by parents who are divorced, single, different races, lesbian or gay, as well as those who are being raised by adoptive parents or guardians.

In middle school they are watching Let’s Get Real, which helps open up discussion about harassment connected to racial tension, religious differences, anti-gay stigma, difference in family income, immigration status and more.

And in high school, students are watching Straightlaced—How Gender’s Got Us All Tied Up, a proven catalyst for helping all upper level students think about how pressures to conform to gender role norms can lead students to collude with anti-gay harassment, engage in risky sexual practices, or get violent.

As part of GroundSpark’s response to this fall’s wave of media attention on teen suicide related to homophobic bullying and harassment, we have been offering free streaming of all of our Respect for All Project films through the end of the year.

Just click on our anti-bullying spark to find out more.

(For That’s a Family! click here for free streaming in support of National Adoption Day)

We’ve Lost a Young Violinist/Google Steps Forward

By | Latest News

I had planned to send out a blog post today announcing our new partnership with Google, but now I need to also let you know about another tragedy that has occurred in the midst of our gratitude.

Yesterday we learned of yet another young teenager who was being harassed daily with anti-gay slurs and who felt that the only solution was to end his life. Brandon Bitner was only 14. Last week, he apparently deliberately ran in front of a trailer truck and was killed. He left behind a note saying he was tired of being called “faggot” and “sissy.”

His classmates are planning on leaving class today and surrounding Mid-West High School in Middleburg, Pennsylvania, with a human chain to remember Brandon and call for an end to bullying.

And as I am writing this, I just learned of another harrowing story. A middle school girl, age 12, was beaten up by students after she attended her Christian fellowship group at Hernando Middle School in Tennessee last week just because her name is Randi.  Apparently her schoolmates objected to the fact that she had a “man’s name.”

These incidents are another powerful reminder of how the pressure to conform to gender norms and the homophobia that underlies those pressures must be addressed if we are ever going to put a halt to the national bullying epidemic.

These events make it all the more poignant for us to gratefully announce that Google has made a $20,000 gift to GroundSpark to support our documentary-film based campaigns to address bias-based bullying in schools.

Google and Gill Foundation

We also recently received an additional significant infusion of support from our longtime partner, the Gill Foundation, to enable us to reach out to more communities with advice, films, curricula, and access to professional development to address anti-gay and all other forms of bullying.

These two remarkable gifts make it possible for us to continue distributing our anti-bullying “Spark” through the end of the year, to continue to provide leadership in the National Safe Schools Roundtable, to respond to school district requests for support to address homophobic and gender-non-conformity issues, and to support schools trying to incorporate LGBT-inclusive curricula.

Free Streaming of GroundSpark’s documentaries extended to December 31, 2010.

Tens of thousands of people have shared the Spark on Facebook, through email, Twitter, or by posting it on their blogs or websites.

The Spark allows anyone to stream four of our top documentary films for free, offers discounts on DVD and curriculum purchases, and easily connects users to downloadable resources.

So many people have clamored to tell LGBT youth that “It Gets Better” and have shared the stories of what they are doing to “Make It Better.”  I’m so proud that GroundSpark can help put real concrete tools at the disposal of all youth, parents, educators, social workers and anyone else who is looking for ways to get the people they care about to start taking action to make sure that it really does get better.

Please put Google and the Gill Foundation’s generosity to work. Click on the SHARE button in the Spark and post it as widely as you can.

Finally, I found this video that Brandon Bitner posted on Facebook earlier this year of him playing a solo in a school concert. Apparently, he was quite a skilled violinist. I can only imagine what kind of harassment he must have endured that could silence this music.

GroundSpark Welcomes New Executive Director

By | Latest News

On behalf of GroundSpark’s board of directors and staff, I am delighted to announce we now have a new executive director! Please join me in warmly welcoming Susan Mooney to GroundSpark, where she will work in partnership with our board, staff, and founder, Debra Chasnoff, to lead the organization into our next exciting chapter.

Susan brings to GroundSpark a unique blend of skills and experience in fostering change in organizations, groups and communities. A leader in the Violence Against Women movement for many years, Susan was instrumental in adding sexual assault prevention as a core component to the first Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), passed in 1994. Over the past 12 years, Susan has focused on supporting progressive organizations undergoing changes in leadership, direction and vision, including Chinese for Affirmative Action, Asian Law Caucus, California Labor Federation and Center for Domestic Violence Prevention. In this capacity, Susan has enhanced the effectiveness and impact of organizations working on a range of civil rights issues including immigrant rights, LGBTQI rights, domestic violence, workers rights and tenants rights. We are thrilled to have Susan’s values and expertise to help lead GroundSpark into the future.

I’d also like to take this opportunity to recognize the amazing work and dedication of Debra Chasnoff. For close to 30 years she has been at the helm of this organization, wearing multiple hats as executive director, filmmaker, producer, lead fundraiser and spokesperson. Debra has made exceptional contributions to the field of documentary filmmaking, the LGBT family rights and safe schools movements, and the environmental justice movement — just to name a few. Her passion, commitment and vision have been extraordinary. With Susan coming on board, Debra, in her evolving role as president and senior producer, will focus on developing new creative projects for GroundSpark and expanding our ability to bring the messages of our film-based campaigns to an even wider audience.

This is an important moment in the life of GroundSpark and we invite you to join us for our next exciting chapter. Your continued support is vital at this time as we transition GroundSpark’s leadership and prepare ourselves for the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.

If you’d like to send Susan your own personal welcome, you can reach her at And thank you, as always, for being part of our work to create visionary films and dynamic education campaigns that move individuals and communities to take action for a more just world.


Ruth Borenstein
Chair, GroundSpark Board of Directors

Addressing LGBT Bullying?
We Can Do Better

By | It's Elementary, It's STILL Elementary, Latest News, Let's Get Real, Respect For All Project, Straightlaced

As news of five suicides committed by youth who were targeted with homophobic harassment has spread across the country, GroundSpark has redoubled our commitment to helping communities do a much better job of addressing anti-LGBT bias, particularly in school.

We are making some of our tools available for free for the next two months
in an effort to get them out far and wide during this time of intense public awareness.

But we need your help. And I don’t just mean by sending a donation.

We need your help in shaping the public conversation and getting GroundSpark’s powerful tools into the right hands.

Click on this “spark” to share our resources and analysis with everyone you know who works with youth. We’ve made it very easy to insert in an email, post on Facebook, Twitter, or any website.

There is a lot of talk right now about more stringent laws and punishment for bullying. We definitely need strong, federal and state anti-bullying legislation. The full solution, though, involves much more than tough laws and rules.

We need to go deeper and address the underlying ignorance and stereotypes that contribute so painfully to the bullying epidemic. We need to build a culture of empathy and compassion. We need to get everyone on board—every student, every parent, and every adult who works with youth.

In recent days, many excellent new initiatives have popped up to support LGBT-identified students and their allies. GroundSpark is building on the good work of our sister organizations by sharing what we do best: sparking the transformation of whole schools from places of conflict and alienation to communities of respect and support.

We know from experience that people get inspired and motivated when they can see moving examples of honest, caring discussion about tough issues like bias-based harassment.

That’s what GroundSpark—through our films, curriculum guides and trainings—can provide. So for the first time our curriculum guides are available for free online and parents and students can stream our films for free into their homes.

Talking about how all students are negatively affected by anti-gay bias, no matter how they identify, is not easy. Nor is talking about stigmas regarding gender norms, race and class. But we have been doing this work, thoughtfully, and with great success for close to fifteen years.

To do our job well, though, particularly at this moment, we need you to help us spread the word.

You can help us reach out to the parents of the youth who do the bullying, the parents of youth who are scared to death to speak up on a classmate’s behalf for fear of being targeted themselves, and the parents who don’t know what to do when their own kids are harassed.

You can help us reach the science teachers, baseball coaches, janitors, and school bus drivers so they understand that it is an important part of their job descriptions to model how to respond to anti-gay slurs.

You can help us give administrators and guidance counselors support and tools to launch in-depth dialogues and school-wide commitments that address bias and prejudice in serious, constructive ways, and not just through discipline.

Please take a moment to share GroundSpark’s Respect for All Project with everyone you know who cares about youth. We’ve brought together our best tools on addressing bias, particularly homophobia. All we need now is you to join our team and spread the word.

Just click here and you’ll see how easy it is to get started.

We’re committed to change. Join us.

Debra Chasnoff
President and Senior Producer