Lisa La Monica lost her first student in the early 1990s.
He stopped coming to class when Miami’s nightlife proved more welcoming than the hallways of Miami Jackson High for a teen who liked to pencil in his eyebrows and do his hair and nails in unconventional ways. La Monica tried her best to make the student feel safe at school, but he was kicked out for missing too many days of class.
A few years later, La Monica was at work when she learned the student’s fate: He had taken his own life.
“The room was reeling,” La Monica recalled. “I couldn’t even breathe because all I could keep thinking was, ‘If he had stayed in school, maybe this wouldn’t have happened.’”
Since that moment, La Monica has done everything she can to make Miami-Dade schools more welcoming for LGBTQ youth. On Sunday, she is being honored with Equality Florida’s Voice for Equality Award recognizing her three decades of advocacy for a group of young people who are among the most vulnerable to bullying, discrimination and suicide. La Monica has created support groups for LGBTQ youth and worked tirelessly to educate students and teachers both at Dr. Michael M. Krop Senior High, where she works as a counselor, and across the state.
“Even if it made her unpopular, Lisa has always been willing to be one of the loudest voices insisting on protecting this group of extremely vulnerable students,” said Stratton Pollitzer, the deputy director of Equality Florida. “I have no doubt that throughout her career she has saved dozens of lives that would have been lost to suicide if not for her heroism.”
Even if it made her unpopular, Lisa has always been willing to be one of the loudest voices insisting on protecting this group of extremely vulnerable students. Stratton Pollitzer, Deputy Director of Equality Florida
Today, Miami-Dade schools have some of the most expansive support networks for LGBTQ students in the country. Each school has a trained staff member to support LGBTQ students, and many have weekly support groups and Gay Straight Alliances. But it wasn’t always this way. When La Monica moved to Miami from New York in 1990, “the majority of the world was still whispering the word gay,” as she put it. In the early ’90s, local advocates pushed for the Miami-Dade school district to include sexual orientation in its anti-discrimination policy, and when the district started offering training for school staff, La Monica jumped at the opportunity to learn how to better support vulnerable teens.
It was three years before any students dared approach La Monica to participate in the support group she started at Miami Jackson, however. Cultural norms slowly started to change, and by the time La Monica moved to Krop in the late 1990s, it only took a few months for LGBTQ students to come to her office. But even so, many of her students continued to face discrimination in their daily lives and feared coming out to their families and classmates.
Cameron Cano is one of the students who joined La Monica’s support group. As an 11th-grader at Krop, Cano had an eating disorder and severe anxiety and struggled with suicidal thoughts.
“I honestly feel like if it weren’t for the in-school support group, I wouldn’t be here today,” Cano said.
Cano came out as transgender the following year with support from La Monica and the other students in the group. “She helped me feel more comfortable with myself because I felt like I had somebody who understood,” said Cano, who is now a student at Florida International University.
It’s not just a matter of comforting and providing support, being a helping hand to LGBTQ youth, it’s also inspiring every kid on anti-bullying practices. Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho
“I think in a lot of ways she’s become a mom to all of her students,” said Jazmin Locke, another former Krop student who participated in La Monica’s support group. “There’s still tough love there. ... She wants us to grow and be able to handle our own issues, but she’s always willing to listen.”
In addition to holding a weekly support group, La Monica helps support Krop’s Gay Straight Alliance and trains young people to share their experiences with bullying and discrimination on youth panels. She has also lobbied in Tallahassee for a statewide anti-bullying law, which passed in 2008, and currently advises the Miami-Dade school district on LGBTQ support services, in addition to serving on the board of Safe Schools South Florida, a group that advocates for LGBTQ youth. All of this work is on top of La Monica’s regular responsibilities as a school counselor, which include working with 525 Krop students.
“It’s clearly what I’m here to do,” La Monica said of her advocacy. “When you respond to the opportunity before you, doors just keep opening. I’ve had so much of a chance to help.”
In 2010, after a string of LGBTQ teen suicides across the country, La Monica started a performance group called Living Rainbow to help her students process the tragedies and spread awareness about the impacts of bullying. The troupe has since performed for hundreds of students, counselors, social workers and others who work with young people.
“I think that’s really led to a major shift in perception and has inspired youth in our school system to be much more accepting and vigilant,” said Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, who will present the Equality Florida award Sunday at the group’s annual Miami gala. “It’s not just a matter of comforting and providing support, being a helping hand to LGBTQ youth, it’s also inspiring every kid on anti-bullying practices.”
At a time when the federal government is withdrawing protections for transgender students, advocates say the type of work La Monica does is more critical than ever. They worry that without a federal mandate that schools treat students according to their gender identity, rather than their biological sex, many schools across the country will leave vulnerable students feeling like they have no one to turn to.
“It’s really impacted young people tremendously and negatively and it’s given rise to just a new attitude where it’s OK to discriminate against people,” said Brad Koogler, the executive director of Safe Schools South Florida.
La Monica is also concerned about the impacts of the change in federal policy. She often thinks about her former student who committed suicide and hopes that at the end of the day, she can help her students develop the tools to deal with discrimination and harassment.
“A counselor has to learn very early on that we don’t save, we empower,” she said. “We empower the students to love themselves, and that is what they need for their entire life. And once they do that, they’re ready to take on whatever comes their way.”
For more photos from the Equality Florida Voice for Equality Awards presentation: https://t.co/6qi6y176OE