Former Student Defends New York Gay High School

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After dropping out of one high school because of classmates' taunts and threats, Louisa McBee re-enrolled in a small, two-classroom program for openly gay students called The Harvey Milk School (search).

"It was a safe haven for kids that were rejected," said McBee, who graduated in 1999, earned a college scholarship and now studies art history at the State University of New York at Purchase (search).

Such successes have moved the city to spend $3.2 million to expand Harvey Milk, begun nearly two decades ago, into a full-fledged public high school for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students.

The school, believed to be the first of its kind and scope in the nation, expects about 100 students when it opens in its expanded form next month.

The expansion, at taxpayers' expense, has drawn opposition from both conservatives and civil libertarians.

"If you want to protect them by creating a special school, yank out the bullies and create a special school for them," said Michael Long (search), state Conservative Party chairman.

Michael Meyers (search), executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition (search), said the school violates city anti-discrimination laws.

"They have found now a formula for discriminating — what I call 'voluntary segregation,' to give victims of discrimination their own classroom and own school," Meyers said.

One state lawmaker has already filed a lawsuit in state Supreme Court seeking to block the expanded school, arguing that it violates the constitutional rights of other students. State Sen. Ruben Diaz (search) said the school is an improper use of public money, especially when other children in the city's troubled school system have such acute needs.

School officials dispute charges of discrimination. Despite its focus, they say, Harvey Milk is open to all students regardless of sexual orientation. And supporters say the school is essential to protect students who have been harassed.

Housed in an office building in Manhattan's East Village, Harvey Milk is named after California's first elected gay official — a member of the Board of Supervisors in San Francisco — who was assassinated after less than a year in office.

"These students have to hide between classes to survive. They have a right to a safe education," said David Mensah, executive director of the Hetrick-Martin Institute (search), a gay-rights youth advocacy group.

The institute, with the city Department of Education, manages the school. It also provides after-school programs such as art and music, and counseling and support services for as many as 2,000 gay and lesbian students, Mensah said.

Harvey Milk isn't pushing a gay agenda, Mensah said, and prides itself on its academic success. Ninety-five percent of the students graduate and 60 percent enroll in college — many of them former dropouts such as McBee.

Delinquency is more common among gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students than others, said Joshua Lamont, a spokesman for the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network (search).

Such students are more likely than others to drop out of school or contemplate suicide because of harassment, and are targeted by bullies more than other students, he said.

In a 2001 survey by the network, 83 percent of gay students reported being harassed at school because of their sexual orientation and nearly 70 percent felt unsafe. The survey was of 904 gay students in 48 states, Lamont said.

"Many of these students have been driven from their own home and are homeless," he said. "If they did not have the Harvey Milk school, they would be out on the street."

Still, harassment is no reason to segregate students based on sexual orientation, said Norman Siegel, former head of the New York Civil Liberties Union (search).

"When you do this you throw in the towel on integration and turn back the clock," he said. "For almost half a century, as a society we have rejected segregation in favor of integration."

McBee, now 23, said the debate over segregation misses the point.

Harvey Milk, she said, was open to students of all backgrounds. It taught her self-confidence and steered her toward a fulfilling career in art and music.

"There were a lot of kids who turned around" their lives at the school, McBee said. "This was their family."