Planned Chicago Gay High School Would Counter Bullying, Fight Suicides
The case for a gay school and curriculum in Chicago was bolstered earlier this month by alarming new statistics cited in a report compiled by GLSEN (the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network). If the proposal goes through, it will join the Milk School in New York, the first such public school in the world.
On November 19, the Chicago School Board meets to determine whether or not to establish an LGBT-friendly high school. If approved, the Social Justice High School-Pride Campus will open in 2010. But before it does, the school’s design team will have to convince the Board of its value and necessity.
Contrary to reports by a variety of media sources (the Associated Press and Chicago’s NBC-TV affiliate among them), Mayor Daley did not block efforts to establish the school at an October 22 Board of Education meeting. According to Chicago Public Schools spokesperson Malon Edwards, the Pride Campus vote was rescheduled along with all other schools being considered for a 2010 opening. All the 2009 schools needed to be attended to first, within the limited time frame of the October 22 meeting.
"At the last Board meeting, there was opposition to this proposal," Edwards adds. Bill Greaves, the City of Chicago’s Liaison to the LGBT Community, who attended the meeting, spoke in support of the school.
GLSEN’s 2007 National School Climate Survey found that nearly nine out of ten LGBT students experienced harassment at school in the past year. Three-fifths felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation, and about a third skipped a day of school in the past month because of safety concerns. When they did attend, the grade point average of students frequently harassed was almost half a grade lower than for students less often harassed.
Add to that the "disproportionately high rates of suicidal behavior among LGBT adolescents and young adults," according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and the necessity for creating an educational environment for LGBTQs becomes clear.
"We hear from parents every day who contact us because their children are facing harassment," says Steve Ralls, Director of Communications for PFLAG. "They’re telling us that the environment in many schools is dangerous and their children cannot learn because they are being distracted by threats and intimidation."
Ralls finds it understandable that parents would want to consider school options that create or foster a more respectful atmosphere for their children.
The Hetrick-Martin Institute, is home to and the sponsoring organization of the Harvey Milk High School, which is nestled in an office building in Downtown Manhattan. Hetrick-Martin Executive Director Thomas Krever commends the City of Chicago "for having the courage to stand up for all young LGBT people and recognize that an education free of discrimination, victimization and harassment is a right, not a privilege."
Krever describes the Pride initiative as representing "a bold move to address this national crisis on a local level-one child at a time."
That was certainly the intent when the Pride Campus design team first met in the spring of 2007. Founding administrators and teachers from Chicago’s Social Justice High School collaborated with representatives from the public school system’s Student Development Department and faculty from the University of Illinois, Chicago.
Creating a Safe Learning Environment
Chad Weiden, assistant vice principal at Social Justice High, says their goal was "to create a safe learning environment for LGBTQs" (the Q is for "Questioning"). The school would replicate the Social Justice High School’s mission to serve as a college preperatory high school that provides students with a "rigorous, safe and supportive learning environment." Weiden says that a Pride campus will acknowledge students who’ve "been overlooked in the system and not given opportunities."
Weiden emphasizes that the school--open, it should be emphasized, to all regardless of sexual orientation--will serve "students who seek to investigate the central question of what it means to be an ally. In order to investigate that, we need a diverse population of students who can ally with someone whose race, sexuality, gender may be different and then work together towards issues of social justice."
With only 600 available slots, Weiden speculates that "there will be a large amount of GLBTQ students from throughout the high schools in Chicago." Even so, he adds, "We want to move away from the perception that this is a gay high school."
Plans are to include LGBTQ concerns in the curriculum while serving as "a training hub to educate teachers and administrators on issues of bullying and harassment, so eventually every school can be a Pride school."
That goal has the full support of Ralls, who believes that "the ultimate answer isn’t to segregate students. It’s to protect students, and we need to do that in the public school system." Ralls says that as opposed to creating stand-alone destinations for LGBTs or resort to home schooling, school districts across the country need to provide the tools for "administrators and parents to adopt policies and implement training to create a school culture and environment that respects and protects LGBT students."
But until then, Ralls concedes, "We also need to give parents options to consider. While we work in public schools that include gay and straight students, PFLAG isn’t going to fault a parent whose child is being subjected to constant harassment for wanting to get their child out of that environment."
Scott Stiffler is a New York City based writer and comedian who has performed stand-up, improv, and sketch comedy. His show, "Sammy’s at The Palace. . .at Don’t Tell Mama"---a spoof of Liza Minnelli’s 2008 NYC performance at The Palace Theatre, recently had a NYC run. He must eat twice his weight in fish every day, or he becomes radioactive.