Public school officials in Chicago, Illinois, are recommending approval of a "gay-friendly" high school because harassment and violence are causing gay students to skip class and drop out at alarming rates.
The School for Social Justice Pride Campus, which officials say will not be exclusive to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students, is aimed at being safe and welcoming for any student looking for another school option, said Josh Edelman, executive officer in the Chicago Public Schools' Office of New Schools.
"It is not going to be a 'gay high school,' but yes, in a way, it is meant to target kids who feel they have been victims of bullying for their sexual orientation or perceived orientation," Edelman said.
Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan announced his recommendation Wednesday. Officials said Pride Campus would be separate physically but be attached administratively to the School for Social Justice.
School officials said the standards and curriculum for the school would be in line with other schools in the district. The school would also offer counseling for students, though because of federal laws, officials cannot ask students about their sexual orientation. The curriculum would not rely on, but would incorporate lessons about, sexual identity in history and literature classes, officials said.
"It's about creating another option for kids," Edelman said. "When it comes down to it, though, it is all about having a choice and providing high-quality options for students, whether they are gay or not."
The school could be a lifeline for students who are struggling for academic success.
Gay and lesbian students are three times more likely to miss school because they feel unsafe, according to a 2003 Chicago Public School District survey. And a study released Wednesday by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network showed similar trends across the country.
The national study, which the group says is the most comprehensive report ever on the experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students nationwide, found that 86.2 percent of those students reported being verbally harassed, 44.1 percent physically harassed and 22.1 percent physically assaulted at school in the past year because of their sexual orientation.
This harassment, the study concludes, has affected students' ability to achieve success in school, causing their grade-point level to be, on average, half a point lower than that of heterosexual students nationwide.
Dropout levels are higher among lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students because of more frequent truancy, the study found. Almost 32 percent of those students missed a class because of feeling unsafe, compared with only 5.5 percent of heterosexual students nationwide, the study said.
Truancy and lower grades aren't the only repercussions of anti-gay sentiments in schools, said Kevin Jennings, the founder and executive director of GLSEN. He cited the killing of Lawrence King, a 15-year-old student shot by a classmate in Oxnard, California, in February after King asked to be his valentine.
Jennings said the repercussions of harassment alone underscore the need for Pride Campus.
"If we keep doing nothing, we are going to keep getting these horrifying levels of harassment, greater rates of skipping, not going to college and more tragic violence like the murder of Lawrence King," he said. "Those are our choices. We can continue to do nothing, and we know the results, or we can save young people's lives and offer them an education and a future."
A similar school in New York, the Harvey Milk High School in the East Village, was created because of similar fears.
The school, which had been around since 1985, serving gay and lesbian students, expanded to a "gay-themed" school for 100 students in 2003. The Pride Campus is expected to serve 600 students, school officials said.
Harvey Milk High School, like the Pride Campus, is open to all students regardless of sexual orientation. But unlike the proposed school in Chicago, Harvey Milk requires its attendees to be at risk of dropping out because of harassment.
Harvey Milk boasts a graduation rate of 95 percent of its students -- all of whom were at risk of or had dropped out -- well above the city average of 52 percent.
When the school opened its doors, protesters, led by anti-gay Kansas minister Fred Phelps, screamed at supporters gathered outside to repent for their "sodomite behavior."
Edelman said that while some concerns have been raised about Pride Campus at community meetings, officials have not heard any large-scale opposition.
One Chicago resident said at a meeting that he could not support the school because of his religious beliefs, Edelman said. Others told local media they didn't support the use of public money to create the school. Some thought that if gay students went to the Pride Campus, students in other schools would not learn to accept the gay community. Instead, they suggested, the focus should be working toward acceptance in all schools.
"Absolutely, we should work for [acceptance] across the board," said Jennings, the GLSEN executive director. "But it's not going to change overnight, and in the meantime, these kids aren't going to graduate."
Jennings said that GLSEN research shows acceptance among peers is helped by having a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender support group at school.
The most important factor, according to the GLSEN study, is the existence of a state law that protects students from harassment based on their sexual orientation.
Thirty-nine states, including Illinois and New York, do not have laws offering that specific protection, Jennings said citing the GLSEN study. Some have laws, but they don't specify on what basis the protections apply, which Jennings said was essentially as effective as having no law at all. California, Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Vermont, Washington and Wisconsin are the only states with specific sexual orientation protections for students.
The Chicago School Board will vote October 22 to approve the School for Social Justice Pride Campus in addition to 17 other proposed schools.
As far as Jennings is concerned, the school board's choice is an easy one.
"The choice they are making is not should we have this kind of school," he said. "The question is 'Are we going to do anything we can to get these kids an education?' And there's only one right answer -- yes."
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