School said to be Safe for Gays
Dallas 'Haven' Caters to Those Fearful of Abuse
[DALLAS, TX] - Christian Pannek was threatened by his classmates in East Dallas. The 18-year-old's car was vandalized, and his parents' home was egged. He tried to commit suicide twice because of the harassment. He wears nail polish, says that he's gay, and that he wants to be an actor or a lawyer, or maybe both. But he could not cope at his public school any longer.
Angel Collie's classmates at the public school in North Carolina used to use a hot-glue gun to glue the petite 16-year-old to her chair. The Mohawk she wears is dyed blue. She has tattoos and wears 38 pieces of jewelry - 35 piercing her mouth, nostrils, and ears. The studs on her tongue slur her words as she explains that she hates her body and wants to become a boy.
Pannek and Collie found a haven in the Walt Whitman Community School, the only private high school in the United States that serves students who have been alienated because of their sexual orientation or that of their parents.
Sports aren't big at this school, which meets only four days per week and currently has 12 students. Some students attend classes every day, while those with full-time jobs attend when they can. Graduation this year has been delayed until August so the three-member senior class can complete the course work they missed or at public schools that seemingly had no place for them.
Most of the students at Walt Whitman and in two similarly focused public programs in New York City and Los Angeles are like typical adolescents. Some, like junior Amber Pate, 17, live on their own. Amber's mother asked her to leave the house when she was 15. But all of them are at Walt Whitman because they say they could no longer endure the verbal or physical assaults by public school classmates or the intolerance of their parents, says Becky Thompson, director, counselor, and history teacher at Walt Whitman.
''They need a safe place, and that is what we are trying to provide. It's still about math, English, and teaching them to learn. It comes down to just being kinder and gentler, and asking the same of them,'' says Thompson, who co-founded the school in 1997 after teaching for nearly two decades in public and private schools.
The school, in the back wing of a red brick church in East Dallas, is publicized by word of mouth. It has only six classrooms; the student body ranges from seven to 26 students in any given year. Core classes include English, math, science, US and world history, government, and economics. Physical education could be bowling or tennis, or a visit to the park.
The school's class sizes are a teacher's delight. ''Students get a lot of attention. There is no sinking into the woodwork here or hiding behind the kid sitting in front of you. We all sit around a table; students are much more challenged, which helps us to find exactly what they lack in terms of their education,'' says Thompson.
The school, which is not accredited, has two other full-time teachers. Students are accepted based on need, and those unable to pay the $7,000 annual tuition must assist in fund-raising activities. Until the school can guarantee a three-year revenue source, accreditation remains elusive, says Thompson, who solicits gay groups and corporate sponsors. Texas Instruments recently gave $8,000.
So far, only two of the school's 77 alumni have gone on to college, sidestepping accreditation concerns by first attending open-enrollment community colleges before transfering into other universities.
Through a volunteer host-family program, out-of-towners such as 18-year-old Michael Boyd, whose parents live 185 miles away in Texarkana, Texas, get housing assistance. His host family has a son who is gay, and are ''really cool people,'' says Boyd, who sang during the Memorial Day holidays at Carnegie Hall in New York as a member of the Turtle Creek Chorale of Dallas. He will graduate in August.
Unlike the two public school programs in Los Angeles and New York City that offer alternative schooling to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender students at risk of dropping out of school, the Walt Whitman also accepts straight students who live with a gay or lesbian parent.
Mychele Lord, who studied the three schools at part of her master's thesis at the University of Texas at Arlington, said the schools were created out of a severe need for students to attend school safely.
''Students who do not follow prescribed gender roles are the students who receive the most and often horrific forms of antigay harassment,'' she wrote in her 124-page thesis.
''The effeminate young boy and the tomboy girl are relentlessly harassed,'' she wrote. ''However, the handsome, masculine, gay football player receives little to no harassment; nor does the attractive lesbian who wears make-up and says she is bisexual, thereby not `dis-ing' boys. The message from teachers and students is: As long as the boys `act like boys' and the girls `act like girls,' then you are OK. And, there is no tolerance for those who do not comply.''
Los Angeles' OASIS (Out Adolescents Staying in School) program is made up of four such schools - the first opened in 1992, and more are planned. The Los Angeles Unified School District provides the teachers, while churches and community groups provide the facilities.
Critics in both heterosexual and homosexual circles have accused the OASIS program of segregation, says Sander Miller, an OASIS teacher.
''These students have already been ostracized, abused, picked on, and pushed to the margins as far as they can go,'' Miller said. ''I don't want anybody telling me these kids are being segregated. Society has already done that. We are trying to make it possible for them to go back into the mainstream.''
The Harvey Milk School in New York City was founded in 1984. A collaborative effort of the New York City Board of Education and Hetrick-Martin Institute, it has a three-year waiting list. ''We take sexual identity out of the way. We make it a nonissue here so students can be free to learn,'' says Lenette Dorman, director of communications at the institute.
What makes all these schools different from mainstream schools, Thompson said, ''is remembering this is all just about kids. They want to find out who they really are, and that's the real process.''
''We just say, OK, this is who you are today, but it may not be who you are in 10 years,'' Thompson said. ''Meanwhile you still need to learn English and know how to add and subtract, multiply and divide.''