Education focus should be coping, not hiding

By Leonard Pitts

New York City school administrators begin filtering back to work next week. Students will return next month. And Harvey Milk High will become reality.
That’s Harvey Milk as in the openly gay San Francisco politician who was famously murdered in 1978. Milk High, you see, is the nation’s first public school for gay students.
The school, which is actually an expansion of a program started two decades ago by a gay rights group, will cost $3.2 million. It is supposed to provide gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered teenagers a place to study without facing the experiences they often do in other public schools.
Experiences like being threatened, getting harassed and having the crap beaten out of them. Milk High is supposed to offer them a sanctuary.
I’ve been trying to figure out why that bothers me. Most of the school’s critics have had no such difficulty.
Some point out that high school is seldom a featherbed for anybody. Kids get picked on because they wear glasses, because they have bad skin, because they are fat. But school is, I’m convinced, a different order of hell for gay kids.
Teenagers often have a bottomless capacity for cruelty toward those who are different. And few differences are perceived as more of a threat than sexual orientation.
Other critics are affronted that public money is being used to fund a school that serves a single, narrowly defined group.
Though I question the wisdom of spending $3 million this way at a time when schools in New York and around the country are in budgetary distress, the principle itself doesn’t bother me. Mainly because public money already funds schools serving narrowly defined groups. What else is a school for the arts, a school with a math or science emphasis, or a school serving children with learning disabilities?
Finally, there’s the question of whether, as a matter of principle, society ought to allow the segregation of students. Didn’t we settle that question with Brown v. Board of Education nearly half a century ago?
But truth is, we never STOPPED segregating children. We only stopped — or at least, said we would stop — segregating them according to the brutal calculus of Jim Crow, which mandated inferior schools for the so-called inferior race. But we segregate for benign purposes all the time.
For example, we segregate by gender under the theory that kids do better in an all-girl or all-boy environment. We segregate by faith: Christians and Jews often enroll their children in private religious institutions. We even segregate by race: Though non-black students can and do attend historically black colleges and universities, those of us who support those schools believe they affirm and nurture black students in ways other schools do not.
Just as Harvey Milk High proposes to do for gay kids. So why does it trouble me, then?
Here’s why: If the problem is straight kids harassing gay ones, I’m not convinced the best solution is to send the gay ones packing. Especially since the real world doesn’t work that way, doesn’t allow you to be sealed away in some safety zone from that which makes your life miserable.
If New York schools have $3.2 million to spend on this problem, maybe they should use the money to do what schools are supposed to do: educate. Teach tolerance to the little miscreants who think hitting a gay kid somehow makes them bigger than they are. Teach it to educators and administrators who allow that behavior.
And if any of them still don’t get it, show them the door and help them through it.
Seek ways to nurture gay kids through what will probably be the most traumatic passage of their lives. Help them come to terms with something that probably scares them as much or more than anybody.
Do that, I think, and you accomplish more than Harvey Milk High ever could.
I mean, it’s fine to give kids a place to run to. But isn’t it better to help them cope with what they’re running from?

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may contact him at:
lpitts@herald.com