Tara Motto spent her first few days of high school eating lunches she brought from home in the bathroom alone. She openly identified as a lesbian and feared the cafeteria because of the homophobic epithets her peers slung at her while she waited in line for french fries or a sandwich. Motto even qualified for a free lunch, but free food at the price of harassment wasn't worth the price.
Though Motto, 18, spent only 2½ months at Milwaukee's Riverside High School before transferring to Alliance, one of just two gay-friendly public high schools in the nation, her memories of Riverside are some of her worst. Along with lunch-room taunting, Motto says she endured death threats and the abuse of having "dyke" spray-painted on her locker.
Motto's high school experience before coming to Alliance is not unique. Gay students fend off bullies in schools across the country every day. Research published recently by the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network found that 82 percent of students who identify themselves as other than heterosexual were verbally harassed at school in the past year, and other studies show gay students are more likely than their heterosexual peers to develop depression or have thoughts of suicide. Thirty-nine states lack laws that specifically protect gay students from harassment at school. In response to this grim reality, Alliance and New York City's Harvey Milk High School opened their doors to give struggling gay students another option—the chance to attend a public school populated by students like themselves and an environment in which their differences are welcomed. But while these schools provide safer environments for gay students, they also reawaken the debate about school segregation.
Before the school opened 3½ years ago, Alliance's lead teacher, Tina Owen, taught at another Milwaukee public high school and heard stories like Motto's from members of the school's Gay Straight Alliance, a club she advised. With no resources to effectively quell the bullying, Owen watched with distress as students who felt unsafe around their classmates simply dropped out. Five years ago when she got wind of an initiative to create new, smaller schools in Milwaukee, Owen—who identifies herself as a lesbian—proposed a charter school where gay students and other victims of bullying could learn in a safe environment.
"At first I was torn about the idea of separating the [victims from the bullies]," Owen says. "A lot of people see schools like Alliance as segregation and say, 'You're taking away the kids and leaving the problem behind.' But I felt like we were not addressing the problem as it was, and we were losing kids in the process."
Alliance teacher Paul Moore says he shared Owen's initial concern when she approached him asking for help to create the school. Moore says he worried about what they could accomplish, since students who graduated would return to environments that might not fully accept gay individuals. But he concluded that the bullying would not dissipate anytime soon and that if gay students felt safer in school, they could better learn the skills that could help them succeed as adults. "Trying to fix a problem like bullying by forcing students to go through a bad experience is a bad approach," Moore says.
Psychiatrist Herbert Schreier of Children's Hospital & Research Center Oakland in California specializes in helping adolescents define their gender and says many of his patients are victims of bullying. While all teens struggle to make sense of their sexuality as they go through puberty, Schreier says teens who identify as homosexual or as transgender and endure bullying are at greater risk for suicide. Research published in 2008 in a leading psychology journal looked at the nearly 14,000 high school students enrolled in a midwestern public school district and found that youths who identified themselves as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or questioning were more likely to report high levels of depression, suicidal feelings, and alcohol or marijuana use. Students who were questioning their sexuality reported the highest levels of teasing, depression, thoughts of suicide, and drug use. But the study also found that a positive school climate and parental support made them less likely to feel depressed or use alcohol.
Owen and Moore point to Alliance's growing student body and the academic achievements of its students as proof of the school's value. During the 2003-2004 school year (the school opened in August 2005), Alliance enrolled 100 students, and the graduating class's valedictorian had a grade-point average of just 1.8 on a 4-point scale. This academic year, the school's population has grown to 125 students, and seniors with GPAs as high as 3.8 are competing for the school's top academic honor. Owen says students who planned to drop out of high school before enrolling at Alliance now have her swimming in requests for college recommendation letters.
Erica Simon, 22, graduated from New York City's Harvey Milk High School in 2006, but she still calls one former teacher there her second father and thinks of the Harvey Milk community as her extended family. English teacher Orville Bell made an effort to get to know Simon and to counsel her when she arrived at Harvey Milk in 2003. At her old high school, Simon says she felt alone and betrayed by teachers who didn't care to know her or understand the struggles she faced as a lesbian teenager. Though she is now a student at Bronx College, Simon still treks to Harvey Milk's location on Manhattan's Lower East Side to visit mentors like Bell and school social worker Tanya Koifman.
Koifman counsels nearly all of Harvey Milk's 99 students, whom she describes as some of New York City's most at-risk adolescents. They are free to leave class at any time to seek her advice, or they can turn to one of many other adults available at the school. "Students know they can't walk into Harvey Milk hoping their problems will go unnoticed," Koifman says.
Harvey Milk cites a graduation rate of about 90 percent, a figure much higher than New York's citywide rate of about 50 percent, as proof of its ability to help students succeed. The school can serve a maximum of 100 students per school year, but Koifman says she thinks there are many more victims of bullying in New York City's 1.1 million student public school district.
It's unlikely, however, that many more gay-friendly high schools will open soon or without controversy.
Harvey Milk's first day of school in September 2003 incited protests, and the Rev. Fred Phelps of Kansas's Westboro Baptist Church was one among the dozen protesters. (Phelps famously displayed a "God Hates Fags" sign at gay-bashing victim Matthew Shepard's funeral and used the same sign to demonstrate against Harvey Milk's students, staff, and faculty, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.) Though Harvey Milk's parent organization, the Hetrick-Martin Institute, had been educating New York City's gay youth through after-school programs since 1985 without incident, New York State Sen. Ruben Diaz, a Democrat from the Bronx, filed suit in New York Supreme Court in the fall of 2003 to block the expansion of these programs into a fully accredited New York City public high school. The suit failed, but Diaz argued, as many gay-friendly high school detractors do, that the school promoted segregation and siphoned funding away from the thousands of children suffering in other failing schools across the city.
The Chicago public school district recently considered plans to create a gay-friendly high school, but opposition voiced by religious community leaders over the school's mission specifically to serve gay students and their allies caused the plans to stall last October. The Chicago Sun-Times reported that Mayor Richard Daley also expressed concern that a gay-friendly high school would segregate gay students.
Chad Weiden, assistant principal at Chicago's Social Justice High School, led efforts to create the new school and says he is confident the city's board of education will support plans to do so when the school's design team submits a revised proposal this spring. "I'm not pleased with this year's outcome, but I'm so pleased with the dialogue we've started on how to create safe school environments for all students," Weiden says, adding that Chicago is not unique in its debate on the merit of using schools to separate gay students and other victims of harassment from their tormenters. Just as Owen and Moore had initial concerns before creating Alliance, many supporters of gay-friendly high schools agree that the schools are a temporary fix, not a permanent solution to keep students safe from bullies.
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.