CHICAGO – Backers of a proposed high school touted as a haven for gay and bullied youth have pulled their proposal, saying they wanted to spend another year to finalize their plans.
Under mounting pressure from ministers and gay activists alike, Social Justice Solidarity High School planners had already changed the school's name and focus to create a school that would be one of the nation's largest to serve any students who have fallen victim to bullying and harassment.
The plan — pulled Tuesday night, hours before a scheduled Wednesday vote on its creation — also was a less explicitly gay version of a plan first presented to Chicago's board of education in October by schools chief Arne Duncan.
The school's intended start date remains fall 2010, planners said.
"The proposal has changed since the Oct. 8 public hearing, and the design team is taking an additional year to finalize the proposal," the design team said in a statement released Tuesday night by Chicago Public Schools.
Chad Weiden, who would be Solidarity High School's principal, did not immediately return a telephone message from The Associated Press.
"We respect the decision of the design team, and we look forward to them resubmitting their proposal in '09," the district said in a statement.
The original plan was for the Social Justice High School: Pride Campus to open in 2010 and eventually serve 600 students, about half of whom were expected to identify as gay. The newer Solidarity plan had the same timeline and enrollment goals, but a different mission.
The initial mission statement to serve "the underserved population of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning youth and their allies" was replaced by one that offers protections for students regardless of "orientation," but doesn't mention sexuality. Instead, the Solidarity school aimed to address "citywide concerns over violence, bullying and harassment."
Students nationwide say sexual orientation and gender identity are two of the top three reasons behind bullying and harassment. Appearance is No. 1, according to the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network.
A 2007 network survey of more than 6,200 middle and high school students found that 86 percent of gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered students experienced harassment in the past year because of their sexual orientation and 60 percent felt unsafe at school.
In the same survey, 33 percent reported skipping a day of school in the past month because they felt unsafe, compared to 4.5 percent of a national sample of secondary school students.
"Harassment is the rule, not the exception, if you're an LGBT student," said Kevin Jennings, founder of the New York City-based Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network.
Chicago's school board had been slated to vote on the Pride Campus proposal in October, but the vote was delayed as school officials and organizers heard from ministers, gay activists and conservatives opposed to segregating gay students.
"If we're going to have a separate high school, let's put the bullies in the high school, not the (gay) kids," said Rick Garcia, political director for the gay rights group Equality Illinois.
The Rev. Wilfredo De Jesus of New Life Covenant Church on Chicago's West Side said ministers' message to Chicago Public Schools was "don't segregate, tolerate."
"The gay community has fought so long to be inclusive and now you're going to isolate them," De Jesus said. "This is not sending the right message."
Other conservative critics argued that gay teens aren't the only ones being bullied and that taxpayer dollars shouldn't be used to provide a one-sided education on such a controversial topic.