Each week about 175 students gather for pizza at eight high schools in South Sound. For some it could be the difference between life and death.
Many of the kids who share lunchtime in a safe setting are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning their sexual orientation. They are joined by allies — straight friends who accept their nonheterosexual friends for who they are.
Welcome to Pizza Klatch, a nonprofit, all-volunteer group whose mission it is to reduce bullying and teen suicide in our local high schools.
It appears to be working. Since Pizza Klatch launched at North Thurston High School in 2007, more than 500 LGBTQ youths have participated, and thankfully, none of them has committed suicide, noted Lynn Grotsky, a Lacey-area therapist who helped form the group.
Pizza Klatch began in response to a rash of teen suicides in the 2005-06 school year by LGBTQ youths or youths perceived to be LGBTQ. The first support group convened after school hours. Two families found out their children were attending the group and sent them away to “straighten them out,” Grotsky recalled.
That’s when the switch was made to school lunch periods in secure settings so youth who didn’t feel safe sharing their sexual identity with their families would be less at risk.
Each group, aided by two trained adult facilitators, sets its own guidelines. Generally, a session starts with everyone sharing one high point and one low point from the past week. Sessions alternate between support and education, with guest speakers on topics such as suicide prevention and how to talk to parents.
“We provide a completely nonjudgmental environment,” said Pizza Klatch facilitator Lucas Miller, a young adult who is secretary of the Capital City Gay Pride Committee. “And we support students if they choose to report a bullying incident.”
Alec and Gabi Clayton are left to wonder what would have happened to their bisexual son, Bill, if Pizza Klatch had existed in 1995 when the Olympia High School student was severely beaten by kids who thought he was gay. Despite a supportive family, Clayton fell into deep depression and ended up committing suicide.
“Bill might still be with us today,” his mother said. “Pizza Klatch would have made a huge difference. Instead, Bill felt the only way to be safe is to die. It was the world that wasn’t safe. If he could have survived that, he could have had a great life, but he didn’t.”
The statistics that swirl around a tragedy such as the one experienced by the Clayton family are frightening. For instance:
• Gay youths are two to three times more likely to attempt suicide than other youths.
• About 45 percent of gay males and 20 percent of lesbians have experienced verbal or physical assault in secondary schools.
• As many as 28 percent of LGBTQ youths drop out of school and make up about 43 percent of the youth homeless population.
Here’s what some of the kids attending Pizza Klatches have to say:
• “I now know people who are in the same place as I.”
• It’s a “good break from the open bigotry at this school.”
For the first three years, the program was sort of “in the closet,” not drawing outside attention to itself, slowly gaining entry into new schools, Grotsky said. By 2013, the group had the support of all the school boards where it operates, including North Thurston Public Schools and Tumwater and Olympia school districts.
“Now we feel truly invested in the schools — they pretty much trust us,” Grotsky said.
Ironically, Pizza Klatch is a victim of its own success. Requests to bring the program to more area high schools are on hold while the group figures out a new financial plan and looks to hire its first paid staff. Pizza Klatch would also like to expand into area middle schools. Meanwhile, calls are coming in from around the country from groups who want to start Pizza Klatches in their communities.
“We never dreamed we would be this successful,” Grotsky said. “It’s wonderful. It’s overwhelming.”
For more information about Pizza Klatch, visit pizzaklatch.org.
John Dodge: 360-754-5444 firstname.lastname@example.org