Gay High Schools Offer a Haven From Bullies

But the schools in Milwaukee and New York also reawaken the debate over school segregation.

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The San Francisco Unified School District is one among a few districts that have made significant efforts to ensure the safety of all students. The School Support Services for LGBTQ Youth (LGBTQ is used commonly within the gay community as an abbreviation for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or questioning) is a program within the district's Health Services Department responsible for providing mental and physical health services to gay students and education about the effects of harassment to everyone else learning or working in the district. Created in 1990, it's the only program of its kind whose services are completely integrated within the district, says Kevin Gogin, the program's director, although he knows of similar programs that exist in Los Angeles and Saint Paul, Minn.

San Francisco's program has an LGBTQ liaison in place at every school who handles individual student concerns. On a larger scale, the program helps manage clubs at the high school, middle school, and elementary school levels designed to promote students' acceptance of one another. Though the program is not perfect, Gogin says that it is working and that school climate surveys indicate gay students feel safer in San Francisco public schools today than they did when the program was created in 1990. Keeping gay and straight students together gives them an opportunity to learn from one another, Gogin says.

With a slightly different take on what those educational opportunities look like, Owen agrees. Since Alliance opened, Owen has made a concerted effort to provide educational programming for other Milwaukee public schools about the ramifications of bullying by having Alliance students speak publicly about their harassment. Many of the students, teachers, and parents Owen meets at these speaking engagements say they had never met a gay person before and did not understand how damaging bullying could be. "But when they hear the students' stories, they get it," Owen says.

At one program with an audience of mostly parents on a middle school back-to-school night, Owen asked the parents to reflect on bullies from their childhood and draw pictures of those individuals. "Every adult in the room drew a detailed picture and had a vivid story to tell of that person who made them hate coming to school every day. We were all just about in tears listening to these stories," Owen says. "Bullying is not something we can take lightly. Just look at those adults. Those painful memories have stayed with them their entire lives, and I don't want that for today's students."

Corrected on 1/7/09: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported the year that Alliance school opened. The school opened its doors in 2005.