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Districts Adopting Policies To Protect Gay Students' Rights

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When Patricia Carey, a school board member in Chappaqua, N.Y., went to a meeting one evening last June, she had a feeling of nervous anticipation. The board was set to vote on a policy to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation, which she and several students had written.

After an hourlong debate, the school board passed the measure unanimously. Chappaqua joined New York City as the state's only districts that specifically prohibit harassment of gay students.

"Homophobic remarks were part of everyday life at school, and we felt it was time to change that," Ms. Carey said. "Teachers don't stand for comments like 'nigger' or 'fatty,' so why should they tolerate negative remarks about homosexuals?"

That same month in Boston, the city school committee announced a four-point plan to promote safety for gay and lesbian students.

The decision was prompted by an article written by a teacher that appeared in the school newspaper. The article called homosexuality "a great weakness and sickness." Students and teachers had hoped that the district's policy--the first in Massachusetts--would spur other school systems to act.

More Districts, More Policies

Boston and Chappaqua are part of a second wave of school districts across the country that are adopting policies aimed at promoting the rights of gay students.

In the late 1980's, a few districts--Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Madison, Wis.--passed broad antiharassment measures that extended a blanket of protection for all students.

But in the past two years, a larger number of school districts have passed protection policies based on sexual orientation. Experts estimate that more than a dozen districts, from San Diego to Boston to St. Paul, have enacted policies designed to make schools safer for homosexual students.

"It's slow, but it's happening," said Andy Hum, the spokesman for the Hetrick-Martin Institute, a New York City-based education and advocacy group for gay and lesbian youths. "Small and large districts are now getting on the bandwagon," he said.

In Birmingham, Mich., the school district last year adopted an antiharassment policy modeled after one created for a local high school. Wiley E. Groves High School's counselor, Frank Colasonti Jr., lobbied for antibias protections, and the district reacted positively. Now, some district schools have resources for gay students: an educational video for juniors and seniors called "What if I am Gay?" and lesson plans with questions about sexual orientation.

"Being gay and lesbian is as natural as being heterosexual," said Mr. Colasonti, who is gay. "We are standing up for our own rights."

In Danbury, Conn., the school board passed an antibias measure last year "with no fuss at all," one board member recalled.

The Westfield, Mass., district also passed a nondiscrimination policy last year. The district now has workshops for teachers and plans to distribute a student handbook that warns against intolerance toward many groups, including homosexuals. Students who repeatedly harass others may be suspended or expelled.

Needed Protections

Supporters of such sanctions say they are necessary because violence against gay youths is on the upswing. Forty-five percent of gay male high school students and 20 percent of lesbian students have been verbally or physically assaulted in school because of their sexual orientation, according to a survey by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, an education and advocacy group for homosexual rights based in Washington.

Hanna Crespo, a 17-year-old senior at the Harvey Milk School in New York City, understands the need for such protections. She left her school in Manhattan two years ago to attend the Harvey Milk School, an alternative school for gay and lesbian students who have experienced discrimination. She said her old school "wasn't a healthy place for me to 'come out."'

"A friend of mine was 'out,' and other students would call him 'faggot,' try to beat him up, and pour drinks on him in the lunchroom," Ms. Crespo said.

Such hostile environments, observers say, are one reason why the suicide rate for gay and lesbian teenagers is significantly higher than that of their heterosexual peers. Young homosexuals are two to three times more likely to attempt suicide than heterosexual youths, according to a 1989 report from the U.S. Health and Human Services Department.

Education Groups, States Act

A handful of states have moved to secure the rights of gay students through legislation. Massachusetts last December became the first state in the country to pass a law protecting homosexual youths from discrimination. (See Education Week, March 2, 1994.)

The state board of education approved an ambitious set of recommendations, such as teacher training and counseling, to protect students from harassment.

The Massachusetts law may serve as a model for other states. In California, Minnesota, and New Jersey, supporters are mobilizing support to introduce gay-rights legislation this year.

A policy shift is also evident among education groups that have developed strategies to promote greater acceptance of gay students. The National Education Association now runs annual teacher workshops designed to acquaint local union leaders with gay-harassment issues. The National Association of State Boards of Education is slated to consider an antiharassment policy at its annual conference this week.

Organized Opposition

However, not every school district faced with proposals to protect gay students has responded positively.

"I definitely think there is an improved understanding of how we need to protect gay and lesbian students," said Mr. Colasonti of Birmingham, Mich. "But that doesn't mean we aren't pushing against walls."

In many districts, efforts to extend protections to homosexual students have been characterized as "dangerous" and seen as undermining family values. Antiharassment policies, which are often followed by calls for changes in curriculum, are anathema to some parents and school officials who say they promote "a gay lifestyle."

When Janice Doppler, the health-education coordinator for the Hampshire, Mass., school district, set up a task force last year to protect gay and lesbian students from discrimination, a group of parents complained.

The group sent a letter to other local parents saying the district's proposal--to integrate gay history into the curriculum and establish an antibias policy--was "extreme" and interfered with parents' rights to teach values in the home.

Faced with such vocal opposition, the district disbanded the task force.

These local controversies have been fueled in part by national conservative groups that have promoted candidates for school boards across the country who campaign against such gay-rights initiatives. In public statements, the Christian Coalition and other conservative organizations have said that defeating gay-rights measures on the state and local levels is a top priority.

Rocky Future?

Even existing policies face pressures that could lead to their repeal. An amendment to the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act now before Congress, for example, would prohibit federal funds from being used to "encourage sexuality of any kind." (See related story.)

It is unclear how this amendment, which was worked out in a House-Senate compromise last week, would affect district policies already in effect. But some observers say the amendment could revert this week to its original language that would bar schools that "promote homosexuality" from receiving federal funds.

"This would throw things into chaos," said Rea Carey, the coordinator for the Washington-based National Advocacy Coalition on Youth and Sexual Orientation. "School librarians would have to pull books off shelves; counselors couldn't make referrals for gay students," she said. And these new gay-rights policies most likely would be stricken by districts fearful of losing federal funds.

But observers say policies that protect the rights of gay students would be difficult to eradicate.

"These are historic events that are very empowering for students," said David LaFontaine, the director of Gov. William F. Weld's commission on gay and lesbian youth in Massachusetts.

Gay rights is a movement, said Mr. LaFontaine, that will not stop at the schoolroom door.

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