Segregation High-And Lows: The Age-Old Question of Assimilation vs. Separation Hits the Chicago Public Schools, Leaving a Proposed High School for Gag Students Lost in the Shuffle

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ANYONE WHO SAYS they loved high school is either lying, deluded, or just really, really lucky. But for gay kids who are teased, bullied, abused, and isolated on a daily basis, those four years are more like hell on earth.

Last winter, 15-year-old Lawrence King of Oxnard, Calif., was shot to death by a classmate. And while outright murder is rare, there's still plenty of cruelty to go around. According to a survey released in October by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, almost 90% of LGBT students said they'd been harassed at school during the past year; 60% reported feeling unsafe because of their sexual orientation. These results, the study authors pointed out, have remained basically static since 1999-the first year GLSEN published the survey.

In June, bolstered by these grim statistics, a group of Chicago teachers, administrators, and education experts presented a groundbreaking proposal to the Chicago public school board: A new Pride Campus, affiliated with the existing Social Justice High School, eventually serving 400 to 600 students, would provide a safe and accepting place for LGBT kids and their allies. The public charter school, if approved, would be only the third of its kind in the country, after Milwaukee's Alliance School and New York City's Harvey Milk High School.

The initial reaction was positive, and the proposal moved easily to the next stage of the process: winning the approval of Chicago schools CEO Arne Duncan. With his support secured, the proposal faced its final challenge--a referendum before the full school board. And that's when voices began to rise in protest. The gay-friendly mission was too narrow, some said. It was exclusionary, others insisted. Some of the sharpest criticism came from longtime gay activist Rick Garcia of Equality Illinois. "Gay kids aren't the problem," he says. "Teachers and administrators that don't stop the violence are the problem."

Then, a few days before the board was to vote on the matter on November 19, a name change was floated: What if "Pride" were altered to something "Solidarity," for instance. And what if the school included other kids who have been ostracized from the general student population, based on their weight or disability or any other "difference"? …