Youth at Prides raise safety concerns

  • by Matthew S. Bajko
  • Tuesday June 19, 2007
Share this Post:

The increased presence of children and young teens at Pride events brings with it concerns over their safety. Pride planners have adopted a range of procedures and methods to ensure children and teenagers are not at risk at their events.

They also want to avoid the scandal that engulfed San Diego's Pride organizers in 2005 after it was revealed a clown hired to work in the event's children's area was a registered sex offender. According to news reports, organizers knew weeks before the annual July festival that three of its volunteers were registered sex offenders.

Two quit amidst pressure, but "Marty the Clown" ended up working the event for several hours, said the reports. The news shocked the city's LGBT community and led to the forced resignation of San Diego Pride Executive Director Suanne Pauley.

The Pride board furthered the controversy when it proposed banning anyone under 18 from its event last year. The situation sent shockwaves throughout the state's Pride boards, which rallied to help San Diego's Pride as well as reviewed their own safety measures.

"We've talked to a number of Prides that have reached out to learn about what we went through and what steps we have taken," said Ron deHarte, San Diego Pride's new executive director.

The same safety procedures imposed last year will be in place this year, he said. All volunteers must now go through a background check, and any unaccompanied minors will be allowed entrance to Pride but only through a special gate near the family area.

"They are also given a card and creed that we wanted to remind them if they ever found themselves in a situation that didn't feel comfortable, of what they should do and what places they can go to for help," said deHarte. "They also pledged not to drink or do drugs and agreed to hang out in pairs or buddies. You don't just wander around by yourself. Each teen also got a card with telephone numbers for social service organizations in case after Pride they wanted to reach out or had questions."

Volunteers from Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays serve as roving monitors who wear special attire so the youth can spot them if they need help, said deHarte.

"It proved successful last year. We will do it again this year and hopefully it will be as successful," said deHarte.

Vanessa Romain, co-president of Long Beach Pride, said members of her board went down to San Diego to assist them last year. At her event, she said teens are not allowed in without a parent or guardian. They also provide ID tags for kids parents can write down contact info on in case they get lost.

"We will monitor where they are as well," she said. "We also ... created a sound system that will shut off all the stages at any given time when a child is lost."

After the incident in San Diego, Romain said they make sure anyone working in the Family Fun Zone area knows they will be fingerprinted and have a background check run on them. A local group called California Families in Focus oversees the area, and Romain noted that the founder's partner is a Long Beach police officer.

"We have never had any problem when it comes to volunteers," she said.

Jeffery Robinson, who runs Fresno Pride, said lots of children who live nearby the festival area show up at the event without their parents. For the last five years, he said, Fresno Pride has made sure there is an area just for kids that is staffed by people the board knows.

"I know this sounds barbarian but I prefer we have family members or women who work with the youth and supervise the bounce house," said Robinson. "We always have people from PFLAG or our own family members donate time to oversee that area."

He said the Pride board did refuse an entertainment group that wanted to perform because its executive director is a registered sex offender.

"We had to say we cannot do it," he said. "All these kids who are not related to our community but come to it, we feel we have to safeguard and shepherd them."

Some Pride board members have a personal stake in the matter as well. Three of San Francisco's Pride Committee members are parents, including board President Mikayla Connell.

"Are we concerned about our children's safety? Of course we are," said Connell. "Does Pride present any special risks? Not at all. It is a great event with a good crowd."

Nevertheless, only people with a child can enter into San Francisco Pride's family area, and the volunteers are parents or older youth who are members of the sponsor organizations.

"You can't come in without a kid," said Aimee Fisher, program manager at Our Family Coalition, which helps run the family area. "The volunteers are people we know."

In the daycare area no volunteers are used. Instead, said Pride Executive Director Lindsey Jones, "We use a licensed and bonded company that specializes in daycare."

The concerns over the safety of youth at events is not a problem solely for the LGBT community, argued deHarte, who pointed out youth groups, churches, and schools all have had to confront the same issue.

"It is not a Pride thing; it is society," he said. "We are trying to be responsible event organizers and address issues being addressed by our entire community."