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Harvey Milk School Offers Haven for GLBT Students
by Mubarak Dahir
2003-10-01

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Critics of the Harvey Milk School—a New York City school for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender high school students—are misunderstanding and misrepresenting the goals and purpose of this special academy.

Contrary to the alarmist yelpings of the naysayers, the Harvey Milk School does not have as its goal the segregation and isolation of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students from the mainstream. It isn't a step backward for integration or mutual understanding. It isn't some covert plot to overthrow America's school systems and set up 'Homo High Schools' all across America.

The school is simply a last-resort alternative for a small group of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students who have been so harassed, so attacked in their regular school systems, that they would otherwise drop out altogethe.

For students who face that grave choice, the Harvey Milk School is their safety net. For these students, the option is usually to go to the Harvey Milk, or not to go to school at all. For them, the Harvey Milk School isn't some horrible segregationist plot—it is a chance to get their diplomas unimpeded by anti-gay tauntings and abuse. The school gives these kids hope and a chance to complete their education—to go onto a better future. For many of the kids there, it is the last hope they have for completing school.

The Harvey Milk School is a program of the Hetrick-Martin Institute, which deals with GLBT youth. It's not new. The program started in 1985, as an experimental, alternative school option for very troubled gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender kids.

But the hoopla over the school started this summer after New York tabloids trumpeted the fact that the school district intends to expand the program over time from 50 to 170 students, and that the school's status will change from one of an alternative program, to one of a fully accredited high school. The expansion begins this fall, when the school plans to increase its student population from about 50 to around 100 students. The upgrade in the school is being made possible by $3.2 million from the city's Department of Education.

The fact that taxpayer money is being used to elevate the school has critics up in arms. The argument is that the public shouldn't have to pay for gay segregation.

In fact, one of the school's harshest critics, New York State Sen. Ruben Diaz, a Bronx Democrat, has even brought a lawsuit against the school. His suit claims the school is illegal because it violates the Education Department's and the city's laws against bias based on sexual orientation. He also claims any money going to a 'gay school' is illegal because it sets up a special class of students, effectively creating illegal segregation, and thus robbing money from other schools.

One has to wonder about Sen. Diaz's newfound concerns for gay and lesbian students, and his sudden interest in gay civil rights. After all, this is the same man who once tried to stop the Gay Games from happening in New York City, fearing that the event would spread AIDS.

But part of the mission of any city's public education system is to create an atmosphere where all kids can get a proper education. For the kids who voluntarily enroll in the Harvey Milk School, it's obvious that the school system is failing them at their 'regular' schools. The fact that the Harvey Milk School has a nearly 20-year track record of helping such kids, and the fact that there is already a waiting list to get into it, shows that the school is working.

The existence of the school, and its expansion, is also evidence that the school system is failing to protect and educate GLBTs.

No one wants to weed out gay and lesbian kids from schools, and isolate or segregate them into a school ghetto. In a more perfect world, kids would learn from one another at school that sexual diversity is natural, normal and healthy. But we don't live in that perfect world. That doesn't mean that the school systems shouldn't continue to improve programs and diversity training and protection safeguards at all public schools. Some day, maybe a place like the Harvey Milk School won't be necessary.

But in the meantime, we shouldn't turn our backs on the students who feel so hassled, so picked on, that they would rather give up their education—and thus likely their futures —rather than face the daily horror of their school lives. To Sen. Diaz and the other critics of this program, I have to ask: Where were you when these kids were getting hounded out of school?


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