Michael Coppola, 14, walked across the stage at his Long Island middle school’s auditorium as the opening passage for “Let It Go,” the standout track in “Frozen Jr.,” the school’s spring musical, began to play.
Michael, who uses the pronouns “he” and “they,” scored the lead role as Elsa, even though he said his music teacher had encouraged him to audition for the male roles.
During the April performance of “Frozen Jr.,” Michael walked up the steps of a raised platform for his big moment. He was nervous. He wore a dark blue dress, and as he began to sing the song’s chorus, everything worked out perfectly: He shed the midnight blue dress and revealed a bright blue, sparkling gown. Cheers erupted from the crowd, and Michael’s tension eased. He beamed as he finished the song.
The transformative moment combined with the song’s message to stay true to yourself struck Michael and his family as symbolic after what Michael has been through.
Michael, an eighth grader at Great Hollow Middle School in Smithtown, New York, said his classmates first began to harass and bully him in elementary school over his perceived sexual orientation and gender identity. His parents, Diane and Mike Coppola, said students have called Michael anti-LGBTQ slurs, thrown objects at him, threatened him and physically abused him. Over the past year, things came to a head as Michael’s parents began a legal battle with the Smithtown Central School District about the bullying ahead of Michael when he started high school. They recently filed a complaint with the New York Division of Human Rights, alleging that the district had discriminated against Michael because of his sexual orientation and gender identity. In response to multiple requests for comment, Superintendent Mark Secaur said the district does not comment on pending litigation.
The Coppolas say their fight has taken place amid a larger push for LGBTQ acceptance in their town, and it’s just one example of a nationwide trend: Schools, even in states that are thought of as largely liberal, are struggling to support lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer students amid a new wave of pushback from parents who believe LGBTQ topics are inappropriate for school.
‘There’s nowhere … that feels safe’
When Michael was in first grade, he told his parents that he felt “more like a girl than a boy.” His parents were supportive, and they began what they describe as Michael’s “gender journey.” They found a psychologist who diagnosed Michael with gender dysphoria, a conflict between his assigned sex at birth, male, and and his gender identity, which is more feminine.
Since elementary school, Michael has expressed himself in part through the performing arts. He has performed in more than a dozen theater productions through school and local theater groups, often in lead roles, and he even landed a brief background role in season four of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”
Diane Coppola said Michael was happy and felt supported until his elementary school shut down because of budget cuts and he had to transfer to Mt. Pleasant Elementary for fourth grade in the fall of 2017.
On the first day of fourth grade, Michael’s teacher asked the students to line up in two lines: one for the boys and the other for the girls. Michael was confused, because his previous teacher hadn't use gender-segregated lines. Michael got in the girl’s line, and his mother said “all the kids were laughing.”
“From that day on, it was relentless,” she said.
Over the next four years, the Coppolas kept a detailed account of more than three dozen alleged incidents of bullying, harassment and discrimination, which they outlined in a legal demand letter sent to the Smithtown Central School District in November. In the letter, they requested that the district take a series of actions to address the alleged harm the bullying had caused Michael and to prevent future harm.
Michael said fourth grade was the first time a peer called him “gay.”
“I thought it was bad,” Michael recalled. “I didn’t know what it was.”
Toward the end of fourth grade, in May 2018, Coppola said she and her husband filed their first complaint under the Dignity for All Students Act, a New York anti-bullying law, after a classmate allegedly threatened to strangle Michael. According to documents Coppola shared with NBC News, the school district investigated and found the allegations to be true. The school administered consequences to the offender and assigned a full-time aide to monitor his behavior, according to the documents, although Coppola alleged that the aide often monitored Michael’s behavior as well.
Then in June 2018, Michael told his parents that some of his peers had formed an “I hate Michael” club. During a conference call with Principal Joseph Ierano and the school psychologist, Coppola said Ierano told her and her husband “not everyone is going to be nice to your son,” and that Michael “has to learn how to deal with that, and he has you to support him.” The district declined all comment, including NBC News’ request to Ierano.
At Mills Pond Elementary, where Michael transferred for fifth grade, Coppola said the situation didn’t improve. Michael's family alleges the cousin of a student who had been in Michael’s fourth grade class began to bully him and called him homophobic slurs in Instagram messages, which the Coppolas shared with NBC News.
Later in the school year, Michael was “reprimanded in front of his peers by his orchestra teacher for wearing heeled shoes to his first violin concert,” causing him “extreme embarrassment and distress over what he thought was an innocent and harmless expression of his identity,” the Coppola's demand letter said.
In middle school, Coppola said the problems worsened. In May 2021, when Michael was in seventh grade, the family alleges a student who had been harassing Michael for a year began telling classmates that he had a gun and a list of people he was going to kill, and Michael was on the list. Coppola said the school took disciplinary action and that the school principal told her over the phone that the police had visited the student’s house.
But the student returned to school, and in June he confronted Michael in the cafeteria and asked Michael to fight him. Coppola said they filed another complaint under the Dignity for All Students Act, and the district found that the allegations were founded, according to documents she shared with NBC News. She said she didn't know what disciplinary action the district took, but that Michael said the student did not return to school.
Now finishing eighth grade, Michael said his peers often tease him about his pronouns and call him anti-trans slurs such as “he-she.”
“There’s nowhere that I can go that feels safe,” he said, at least “not in school."
Coppola said she believes the district hasn’t taken the issues seriously in part because it believes Michael is just being too sensitive. She said Michael has also occasionally fought back in an effort to defend himself. In one instance in seventh grade, she said, he kicked out toward a student who was harassing him in the gym but didn’t make contact. The student then pushed him to the ground and told him that “next time” he would punch Michael in the face, Coppola alleged.
In that case, Coppola said the school told Michael, “You kicked him first.” But she said that ignores the cumulative effect of what Michael has faced nearly every day for four years, and it doesn’t justify the other things students have done to Michael.
“He’s a really kindhearted kid,” she said. “He just wants to be accepted.”
The last four years have taken a toll on Michael. Coppola said his psychologist diagnosed him with an anxiety disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder, for which he takes medication, and he has developed an eating disorder.
Michael said the bullying has “definitely changed me a lot.”
“I’ve lost a lot of my friends because of it,” he said, adding that one friend’s parents no longer allow her to see Michael “because of who I am and everything.”
“It’s just hard for me to feel completely happy for one day,” he said.
Coppola said the entire family has felt the effects of the past four years. She had planned to return to her job in marketing, but she said she doesn’t have time anymore. She drives Michael to and from school because she fears he would be bullied on the bus.
“This has consumed my whole life,” she said. “There’s not a day that I don’t worry.”
The proposed settlement
In March, the Coppolas filed their complaint with the New York Division of Human Rights for alleged discrimination (for which they are seeking damages), and have requested that Michael be allowed to attend the Long Island High School for the Arts for all four years of high school.
The Long Island High School for the Arts is a public school career and technical education program for students in grades nine through 12 specializing in the arts. Students apply and attend as part of their school district’s contract with LIHSA, and school districts pay the tuition.
In addition to helping Michael develop as a performer, Coppola believes LIHSA will provide a more accepting environment for him because the school celebrates LGBTQ Pride Month, for example.
Coppola said that the district’s current contract only allows students to attend LIHSA for 11th and 12th grade, so in her complaint she asked for an exception to that policy — and it’s an exception the district proposed in a draft settlement created by the district’s legal team this past November.
In the draft agreement, which Coppola shared with NBC News, the district said it was willing to allow Michael to attend LIHSA for all four years, but the Coppolas rejected the agreement because it included a confidentiality clause and a requirement that the Coppolas waive their right to pursue “any further lawsuit or administrative proceeding” until Michael graduates in June 2026. Coppola said she told her lawyers from the beginning that she wouldn’t sign a nondisclosure agreement or any other confidentiality clause.
“I told them that Michael has every right to tell their story,” she said.
Once the Coppolas rejected the settlement, the district reversed course and said it would allow Michael to attend LIHSA for only 11th and 12th grade, citing its current policy, according to emails Coppola shared with NBC News.
Then, in a written response to the Coppolas’ human rights complaint in May, the district said it had made various accommodations for Michael, including allowing him to complete written packets for gym and go to the counseling center during class if he felt anxious.
“Any allegations of bullying or harassment were fully investigated by the District, and the district would always separate Michael and the accused student whenever possible, even if the complaint was determined to be unfounded,” the district said in response to the human rights complaint.
The district also again reiterated its policy that only incoming juniors were allowed to take part in the LIHSA program. It said that, as part of the settlement, it would have allowed Michael to attend as a freshman, but that the family “rejected the entire agreement.”
Coppola said the district’s offer to send Michael to LIHSA for the first two years of high school only if the family signed a settlement felt retaliatory.
“A friend of mine asked me, ‘Do you think you should have signed the agreement? Because ultimately, don’t you just want to get him in a better place?’” Coppola recalled. “But I don’t think that was the right decision. … It’s not right that people don’t know that this is going on in Smithtown, and we shouldn’t have to be silenced.”
On Wednesday, the day after NBC News reached out to the district for final comment, Coppola said she had been informed that the district’s counsel remained open to permitting Michael to attend LIHSA but remained unwilling to provide financial compensation.
Coppola said the human rights specialist overseeing her case then asked if she still wanted to pursue the complaint. She said yes.
“They have annihilated him,” she said of the district, adding that Michael has had four therapy sessions in the past week, which she spent $300 on. “What do I do in a couple of weeks, a year from now, two — I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
‘We need visibility’
The Coppolas said they are fighting their battle in an area of Long Island that has been affected by nationwide debates over how LGBTQ issues and race are addressed in schools, and they believe it’s affecting both how Michael is treated in school and how the district has responded to their concerns.
At a school board meeting in May, for example, Mike Simonelli, who ran unsuccessfully for the Suffolk County Legislature in November, began a speech by saying his pronouns were “American, veteran and dad.” Some people in the crowd whooped and cheered.
“If you’re saying to yourself, those aren’t pronouns, those are nouns, and if you notice that, if it bothers you, if you believe that words have meanings which help us to communicate in a common language, then how confusing do you think it is for our children to be told that a boy should be addressed as a girl or a singular girl can be addressed as a plural ‘they’?” Simonelli said during the board meeting.
In a letter to parents on May 16, Secaur, the district superintendent, wrote that “while the community member has a right to his opinion, our students also have a right to their identity.”
“Our students who identify themselves with what the community member referred to as ‘Fantasy Pronouns’ are among our most vulnerable and should not be the latest victim of people attempting to politicize education,” Secaur wrote. “Our concern is for our students and our goal is to make sure they ALL feel welcome and respected in our schools.”
Some students at Smithtown High School East staged a walkout in May in response to Simonelli’s comments, News 12 Long Island reported. The organizer of the walkout, senior Maria Rondon, told the outlet that “the toxicity and discrimination need to stop.”
Emma and Kayla, two seniors at Smithtown High School West and co-presidents of the school’s Gender-Sexuality Alliance, an LGBTQ club, told NBC News that the administration has been supportive of their club, but that some parents, including those behind an Instagram account called Save Smithtown Schools, have created a hostile climate for LGBTQ students.
Kayla said the page has targeted the High School West Gender-Sexuality Alliance multiple times.
“Gender-Sexuality Club funded by our tax dollars out of High School West,” the anonymous person(s) behind Save Smithtown Schools wrote in one post about the alliance. “Kids are as young as 13 when they start HS. Are you ok with the school district pushing sexuality on children? Comments have been turned off due to hostility.”
The Save Smithtown Schools account did not immediately return a request for comment.
“It’s really scary, like the extent that they go to, knowing that there are these adults somewhere hiding behind this Instagram page where they’re saying, ‘We want to save schools,’ and then they essentially attack a bunch of teens and young adults that are trying to go to school and trying to be themselves,” Kayla said.
David Kilmnick, president of the LGBT Network, a Long Island LGBTQ advocacy group, said the group is dealing with “dozens of issues” in the Smithtown district and Suffolk County “stemming from a lot of the hateful board meetings.”
“We’re hearing it from both kids and parents and teachers — about how the climate has changed” for LGBTQ students, he said, adding that the environment has done an 180 “from the time that we helped to start those two GSA clubs years ago to where it is now.”
The lack of clear support for LGBTQ people extends beyond schools and board meetings, according to Michael’s voice teacher, Steven Kroeze Tompkins, who lived in the same county in neighboring Hauppauge for five years. After several homophobic incidents, including being subjected to derogatory remarks in the grocery store and being told they would “burn in hell” by some community members, he said he and his husband moved to Manhattan three years ago.
Though he and his husband left the area, he said he’s proud that the Coppolas have stayed and that Michael has remained unapologetic about who he is. Tompkins said that on Christmas Eve in 2018, before he and his husband had moved to Manhattan, Michael showed up at their church in Hauppauge wearing a gown and high heels to sing a solo in front of everyone.
“That’s what we need,” he said. “We need visibility, and Michael and his family are creating this in the most difficult environment.”
He added that Michael’s experiences show that LGBTQ people still aren’t completely safe or protected, even in New York.
“It’s not just Florida and Texas,” he said, referring to recent efforts by those states’ leaders to target LGBTQ people. “This is New York. This is an hour and 15 minutes from New York City.”
Coppola said her friends and Michael’s psychologist have suggested that the family move Michael to a different district, but Michael hasn’t wanted to leave.
“What I want is for it to help other kids, too,” he said of his family’s efforts to make his school district more inclusive.
Even though things have been harder for him recently, he plans to wear a rose gold dress to a school dance at the end of the month. Coppola said that’s typical of Michael — when things are the hardest, he “digs his heels in.
“In his life, when it’s the worst, he is the most determined,” she said.