An LGBTQ rights tipping point in America prompts a New York teenager and his family to seek help from the state.

Michael Coppola, 14 years old, walked across the auditorium at his Long Island middle-school's auditorium to begin the opening song for "Let It Go," which was the standout track of "Frozen Jr.

NewsEditor
NewsEditor
12 June 2022 Sunday 18:54
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An LGBTQ rights tipping point in America prompts a New York teenager and his family to seek help from the state.

Michael Coppola, 14 years old, walked across the auditorium at his Long Island middle-school's auditorium to begin the opening song for "Let It Go," which was the standout track of "Frozen Jr.", the school's spring musical.

Michael, who uses "he" or "they", was cast as Elsa's lead role, even though he claimed that his music teacher encouraged him to audition for male roles.

Michael took his big moment during the April performance of "Frozen Jr." and walked up to a platform. He was nervous. He was wearing a dark blue dress. As he sang the chorus, it all worked out: He removed the midnight blue dress to reveal a bright, blue, sparkling gown. The crowd erupted in cheers and Michael felt less tension. As he ended the song, he smiled.

Michael and his family saw the transformational moment, along with the message of the song to be true to yourself, as a symbol for what Michael had been through.

Michael, an eighth-grader at Great Hollow Middle School, Smithtown, New York, claims that his classmates bullied and harassed him in elementary school because of his sexual orientation and gender identity. Diane and Mike Coppola, his parents, claimed that students called Michael anti-LGBTQ slurs and threatened him with physical abuse. The bullying that Michael experienced at high school led to his parents suing Smithtown Central School District for a year. The parents recently filed a complaint to the New York Division of Human Rights alleging that the district discriminated against Michael due to his sexual orientation and gender identity. Superintendent Mark Secaur responded to numerous requests for comment and said that the district doesn't comment on any pending litigation.

According to the Coppolas, their struggle has been a result of a greater push for LGBTQ acceptance in their community. This is just one example of a national trend: Schools across states are struggling to support lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender students amid new resistance from parents who feel that LGBTQ topics are inappropriate for schools.

Michael, when he was in the first grade, told his parents he felt more like a girl than his father. They began what they call Michael's "gender adventure." A psychologist diagnosed Michael with gender dysphoria. This is a conflict between his birth sex and his gender identity which is more feminine.

Michael has been performing since elementary school. Michael has been part of more than a dozen theatre productions, many in leading roles. He also played a minor role in the fourth season of "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel."

Diane Coppola stated that Michael was happy and felt supported up until his elementary school closed down due to budget cuts. He had to transfer to Mt. Pleasant Elementary in the fourth grade was his choice for the fall 2017.

Michael was asked by his teacher to arrange the fourth-grade students in two lines. One for the boys, one for the girls. Michael was confused because his teacher had never used gender-segregated lines. Michael joined the line for the girl, and his mother told him that "all the children were laughing."

She said, "From that day forward, it was relentless."

The Coppolas maintained a detailed record of over three dozen incidents of harassment, bullying, and discrimination for the four-year period. They sent a legal demand letter to Smithtown Central School District, November, in which they detailed their findings. They requested that the district take steps to remedy the harm Michael was subject to bullying and prevent further harm.

Michael stated that fourth grade was the first year a peer called Michael "gay".

Michael said that he thought it was terrible. "I didn’t know what it was."

Coppola claimed that her fourth-grade fourth grader husband, Coppola, filed their first complaint under New York's Dignity for All Students Act in May 2018. This is an anti-bullying law. Coppola stated that she and her husband had filed the complaint after Michael was allegedly threatened with strangulation. Coppola provided documents to NBC News that show the school district investigated the allegation and concluded it was true. According to documents, the school issued consequences to the offender, and also assigned a full time aide to monitor Michael's behavior. Coppola however claimed that the aide sometimes monitored Michael's behavior.

In June 2018, Michael informed his parents that his peers had started an "I hate Michael” club. Coppola stated that Principal Joseph Ierano, the school psychologist, told Coppola that he had said to her and her husband that "not everyone will be nice to you son" and that Michael needed to learn how to handle that.

Coppola stated that the situation at Mills Pond Elementary where Michael was transferred to fifth grade didn't improve. Michael's family claims that a cousin of a student in Michael's fourth-grade class started to bully him. He also called Michael homophobic slurs via Instagram messages. The Coppolas shared these messages with NBC News.

Michael was later reprimanded by his orchestra teacher for wearing heels to his first violin concert." This caused him "extreme embarrassment, distress and concern over what he believed was an innocent expression of his identity," according to the Coppola demand letter.

Coppola stated that the problems got worse in middle school. The family claims that Michael was seventh grade when a student began harassing him for a year and started telling his classmates that he had both a gun and a long list of people he wanted to kill. Michael was also on the list. Coppola stated that the school had taken disciplinary action against the student and that the principal of the school told Coppola over the telephone that the police had visited his house.

The student went back to school and confronted Michael in cafeteria. He asked Michael to fight him. Coppola stated that they had filed another complaint under Dignity for All Students Act. According to documents shared with NBC News, the district found the allegations true. While she did not know the details of the district's disciplinary action, she said that Michael stated that the student was not allowed to return to school.

Michael, now in eighth grade, said that his peers tease him about the pronouns he uses and call him anti-trans slurs like "he-she".

He said that "there's no place that I can go that feels secure," at least not in school.

Coppola stated that she believes the district isn't taking the issue seriously because it thinks Michael is being too sensitive. She also said that Michael has sometimes fought back to defend himself. She said that he once kicked out at a seventh-grade student for harassing him in the gym, but did not make contact. Coppola claimed that the student pushed Coppola to the ground, and threatened to punch Michael in the face again.

Coppola claimed that Michael was told by the school that he had been kicked first. But that doesn't account for the cumulative effects of all the things Michael has experienced over the past four years.

She said, "He's a very kindhearted kid." He just wants to be accepted."

Michael has suffered a lot over the last four years. Coppola stated that his psychologist diagnosed him as having an anxiety disorder and a post-traumatic stress disorder. He also takes medication for the disorder.

Michael stated that the bullying had "definitely changed my life."

He said that he had lost many of his friends as a result. One friend was told by her parents that she cannot see Michael because of "who I am and all."

He said, "It's just difficult for me to feel completely satisfied for one day."

Coppola stated that the whole family has been affected by the events of the past four year. Although she had hoped to return to her marketing job, she stated that she does not have the time. Because she is afraid Michael would be bullied while riding the bus, she drives Michael to school.

She said, "This has consumed all of my life." "There is not a single day I don't worry."

The Coppolas filed a complaint with the New York Division of Human Rights in March for alleged discrimination. They are seeking damages and requested that Michael be permitted to attend the Long Island High School for the Arts for the entire four-years of high school.

Long Island High School for the Arts offers a career and technical education program for students in grades 9-12 that specializes in the arts. Students can apply to the school district that has a contract with LIHSA. The tuition is paid by the school district.

Coppola believes that LIHSA will help Michael grow as a performer and also provide a more welcoming environment because it celebrates LGBTQ Pride Month.

Coppola stated that the current contract allows students to attend LIHSA only for 11th and/12th grades. She filed a complaint and asked for an exception. This exception was made by the district in a draft settlement that was created by the legal team in November.

Coppola shared the draft agreement with NBC News. The district stated that it would allow Michael to attend LIHSA all four years. However, the Coppolas rejected it because it contained a confidentiality clause. Also, it required that the Coppolas give up their right to "any further lawsuit or administrative proceeding" after Michael graduates. Coppola stated that she had told her lawyers at the outset that she would not sign any confidentiality agreement.

She said, "I told them Michael has every right tell their story,"

After the Coppolas had rejected the settlement, the district changed its mind and said that Michael could attend LIHSA only 11th and/12th grades. This was based on the current policy of the district, as per emails Coppola shared to NBC News.

In a written response to Coppolas' May human rights complaint, the district stated that it had made several accommodations for Michael. For example, it allowed him to fill out written gym packets and to visit the counseling center if he was feeling anxious.

The District thoroughly investigated any allegations of harassment or bullying and would separate Michael from the accused student whenever possible.

It also reiterated its policy of allowing only juniors to participate in the LIHSA program. It stated that Michael could have been admitted as a freshman under the settlement. However, the family rejected the whole agreement.

Coppola stated that the district offered to send Michael to LIHSA during his first two years of highschool if the family agreed to a settlement.

"A friend of mine asked me if I thought you should have signed that agreement. Coppola said that ultimately, you want to put him in a better position. But I do not believe that was the right choice. It is not right that Smithtown residents don't know this, and we shouldn’t be silenced.

Coppola stated Wednesday that she received word from the district counsel that Michael could attend LIHSA, but was not willing to pay financial compensation.

Coppola stated that the human rights specialist who was overseeing her case asked her if she wanted to continue the complaint. She answered yes.

She said that the district had "annihilated" Michael. She also mentioned that Michael had been to four therapy sessions in the last week for $300. "What will I do in the next few weeks? A year from now? Two -- I don’t know what’s going to happen."

According to the Coppolas, they are fighting for their rights in Long Island where there has been a national debate about how LGBTQ issues and race are dealt with in schools. They believe this is affecting how Michael is treated at school and how the district responds to their concerns.

Mike Simonelli, who unsuccessfully ran for the Suffolk County Legislature in November and was a member of the school board in May, opened a speech saying that his pronouns were "American veteran and dad." Others cheered and whooped.

Simonelli stated during the meeting that pronouns are not used in this context.

Secaur, the district superintendent wrote to parents May 16 that while the community member may have a right of opinion, students have the right to their identity."

Secaur wrote that students who identify with "Fantasy Pronouns" are among the most vulnerable in society and shouldn't be considered as the latest victim of those trying to politicize education. Secaur wrote, "Our concern is for students. Our goal is to ensure that they feel welcomed and respected in our schools."

News 12 Long Island reported that Smithtown High School East students staged a walkout on May 2 in protest of Simonelli's remarks. Maria Rondon, a senior, was the organizer of the walkout. She stated that the "toxicity and discrimination must stop."

Emma and Kayla, both seniors at Smithtown High School West, are co-presidents for the school's Gender-Sexuality Alliance. They told NBC News that while the administration is supportive of their club and that some parents (including those behind Save Smithtown Schools) have created a hostile environment for LGBTQ students.

Kayla stated that the page had targeted High School West Gender-Sexuality Alliance several times.

The anonymous person behind Save Smithtown Schools wrote that the alliance was funded by the tax dollars of High School West. "Kids as young as 13 years old start High School. Do you agree with the school district imposing sexuality on children? "Hostility has caused comments to be turned off."

The Save Smithtown Schools account didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

Kayla stated, "It's scary, like how far they go, knowing that there are some adults somewhere hiding behind an Instagram page that says, 'We want schools saved,' then they essentially attack teens and young adults who are trying to go school and being themselves."

David Kilmnick is the president of the LGBT Network on Long Island, an LGBTQ advocacy group. He said that the LGBT Network has been dealing with "dozens" of issues in Smithtown and Suffolk County, "stemming from many of the hateful board meetings."

He said that parents, students, and teachers are hearing about the changes in the climate for LGBTQ students.

According to Steven Kroeze Tompkins (Michael's voice teacher), the lack of support for LGBTQ people goes beyond schools and board meetings. He lived for five years in the same county, Hauppauge, for five years. He said that he and his wife moved to Manhattan three years earlier after a series of homophobic incidents. These included being made fun of in the grocery shop and being told by community members they would "burn in Hell".

He said that even though he and his wife left the area, he was proud that the Coppolas stayed and that Michael has never apologized for who he is. Tompkins stated that Michael, his husband and their move to Manhattan in 2018 meant that he arrived at their Hauppauge church wearing a dress and high heels to perform a solo for everyone.

He said, "That's all we need." We need visibility and Michael and his family create it in the most difficult of environments."

He said that Michael's experience shows that LGBTQ people are still not completely protected or safe, even in New York.

He said that it wasn't just Florida or Texas, and was referring to recent efforts made by these states to target LGBTQ persons. "This is New York. This is New York City, approximately one hour and fifteen minutes away.

Coppola stated that Michael's psychologist and his friends suggested that Michael be moved to another district. However, Michael doesn't want to go.

He said that he wanted his efforts to make his school district more inclusive to include other children.

He plans to wear a rose-gold dress to school dance at the end, even though it has been difficult for him lately. Coppola stated that Michael is a typical person who "digs in" when it gets tough.

She said, "In his life when it's worst, he is most determined."

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