Clothes Pose Question: Are Gay Students Safe?
A male student who wore a skirt to school was sent home. At the same time, many schools are learning they have to protect gay students.
[TAMPA, FL] - Last week Middleton High School junior Antonio "Loloe" Williams was sent home twice after he wore a skirt to school. School officials said the boy's attire violated the dress code by creating a distraction for other students, even though they said teens are allowed to wear the opposite gender's clothing if it doesn't disrupt learning. But the 17-year-old student, who said he is asexual, calls the school's stance discriminatory.
"I'm really disappointed in the school system," said Williams' mother, Carmela. "They're failing to let my child get an education all because of a dress code."
The Middleton flap shows the dilemma that schools can face as they grapple with how best to serve gay students and those who deal with gender identity issues.
For the most part, it was not an issue in schools 10 or 20 years ago, when many gay students did not wear their sexual orientation on their sleeves -- and before legal concerns were raised.
"When I first became an educator, it was ignored," said Palm Harbor University High School assistant principal Harry Brown. "It didn't exist. It was taboo."
Then came students who sued their schools and won, showing school districts they could be held legally responsible for failing to protect homosexual students from harassment. School systems nationwide have shelled out millions for lawsuits.
Some school districts, like Pinellas County, provide specific protection for gay and lesbian students from student-on-student harassment. Hillsborough County added sexual orientation to its policy this year.
Yet gay advocacy groups say how much protection and support students receive varies widely from school to school. As Tampa president of Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, Jane Boles said schools are not doing enough for gay teenagers -- students at a higher risk of dropping out and committing suicide, according to national studies.
Five years ago, Boles received a call from a Tampa student who wanted to start a club for gay teens at her school. The girl, who wore a rainbow ribbon on her blouse as she gathered signatures supporting the club's formation, was told by school officials that what she was doing was "wrong and immoral," Boles recalled, preferring not to name the school.
"They likened the rainbow to the Nazi flag."
It took two years, but finally the girl was allowed to organize a gay-straight alliance club at her high school just before she graduated. The club drew 75 students at its first meeting.
Boles said people would be shocked by the frequency that gay and lesbian slurs are used in schools.
"Any teacher or administrator would not allow students to use a racial slur, but they frequently turn their back on gay and lesbian slurs," Boles said.
David Caton, executive director of the Florida Family Association, agrees that schools have an obligation to provide a safe environment for all students. But saying it's okay for boys to wear skirts to school is going too far, he said.
"The focus should be on studying," Caton said, "not focused on him and what he's wearing."
Many schools have clubs and support groups for gay students. They include Tampa Bay Tech, Plant and Blake high schools in Hillsborough.
Senior Alison Scher, who is straight, started a club at Plant High School last year to improve tolerance of gay students among her classmates.
"It's a big issue and more attention needs to be paid to it," said Scher, whose best friend is gay. "Guns in schools are a problem but the people they're aimed at is a bigger problem."
Brown was an assistant principal at Largo High School in 1997 when several students told him they had been harassed and wanted to form a gay club. Largo High became one of the first schools in the Tampa Bay area to create a gay-straight alliance, which drew criticism from Caton's group. But Brown said the clubs increase awareness among students and teachers.
"We're not promoting a lifestyle, we're protecting our children," Brown said. "It's a safe schools issue."
Parent Kathy Miller believes it comes down to more education -- for administrators, teachers and students.
Miller, president of PFLAG in Pinellas County, took her son out of ninth grade because of harassment. At the time, he had not told his family or friends he was gay. "We need to teach tolerance," she said. "If someone is different, it's okay."
Human Rights Watch published a study last year that said as many as 2-million gay teenagers are bullied in U.S. schools to the point that they don't receive an adequate education.
Robert Loupo, a counselor with Miami-Dade County Schools, said schools have a legal as well as a moral responsibility to make sure kids feel safe.
"If our youth are not feeling safe or if they're being threatened or harassed, they're not going to learn," said Loupo, who spoke to about 75 Hillsborough middle and high school guidance counselors last week. "And our schools are about learning."