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Mass. Report Calls for Policies To Aid Gay Students

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Massachusetts secondary schools need to alter their policies, curricula, teacher training, and libraries to make schools safer for gay and lesbian students and to help them realize their educational potential, a state panel has recommended.

A report released last month by the Governor's Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth details the harassment of gay and lesbian students in school, their increased risk of suicide and dropping out of school, and a lack of adult role models with whom gay students can identify.

Although the panel's recommendations are expected to be politically controversial, they have been endorsed by Gov. William F. Weld, who set up the commission last year. The commission is the first official state panel in the nation to focus on the issues facing young homosexuals. (See Education Week, Feb. 26, 1992.)

While backing the panel's proposals, however, Mr. Weld indicated that their implementation should be a local option rather than a state mandate.

After hearing testimony from gay teenagers and others last fall, the commission concluded that there is an "unsafe climate'' in schools that "denies equal educational opportunity to lesbian and gay youth.''

"Adults who work in Massachusetts schools are ill equipped to meet the needs of lesbian and gay students,'' the commission report says. "Either intimidated or ignorant, school staffs often fail to provide these young people with the support and even the protection they need.''

"The message we want to send is schools are dangerous places for gay and lesbian students,'' David LaFontaine, the commission's chairman, said last week.

Concern Over Values

The report has drawn a positive response from many educators around the state. A number of school districts have already inquired about how to implement the recommendations, Mr. LaFontaine said.

A teachers' union representative and members of the gay and lesbian community also supported the report's recommendations in interviews last week.

But others have expressed concern that the implementation of the recommendations not lead to an endorsement of a homosexual lifestyle.

"I think the concern we have is the expression of values'' in the recommendations, said Gerald D'Avolio, the executive director of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference.

Observers also suggested the Massachusetts proposals may be particularly contentious in light of the heated debate in New York City over the teaching of tolerance for homosexuals, which was responsible in part for the ouster last month of Schools Chancellor Joseph A. Fernandez. (See Education Week, Feb. 17, 1993.)

Support Groups, Staff Training

In its report, the commission called for secondary schools to adopt policies to protect gay and lesbian students from harassment, violence, and discrimination and to establish support groups in which homosexual and heterosexual students can meet to discuss gay issues.

Teachers and other school staff should also be trained to respond to the needs of gay and lesbian students, including protecting them from harassment and intervening to prevent suicide and dropping out, according to the report. The commission recommended that teacher certification and school accreditation be contingent upon such training.

Frederick Andelman, the director of professional development for the Massachusetts Teachers Association, said the goals are legitimate and could be included in the comprehensive school-reform bill currently before the legislature.

Mr. Andelman noted that one of the current teacher-certification standards is that candidates show "sensitivity to individual differences and learning styles.''

The commission also recommended that knowledge of gay and lesbians, their experiences, and their contributions to society should be integrated into all curriculum subject areas.

In addition, the report urges, school libraries should have a collection of books, films, and pamphlets on gay and lesbian issues.

Jessica Byers, a lesbian high school senior who is a member of the commission, said that such efforts can mean a lot to gay and lesbian students. She recalled that her English teacher recently mentioned that the author Herman Melville was a homosexual and discussed what influence that may have had on his writing.

"Just little things like that,'' would make school curricula more friendly to homosexuals, Ms. Byers said.

The commission also recommended that the state education department develop and disseminate a resource book about gay and lesbian youth, and that the legislature enact legislation protecting gay and lesbian students in public schools against discrimination in admission to schools or access to school activities and courses of study.

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