Similar counselors are already in place in eight other government school districts around the country. They report receiving frequent requests for information about how they set up their programs.
Seattle is one of the school districts with programs devoted to homosexual students. "This is a serious issue," said Lisa Love of the Seattle Public Schools' health education office, the district's go-to department on sexuality issues. "It is the legal responsibility to protect students from liability. I think the legal threat is very real."
Whether real or perceived, the threat of lawsuits resulting from the harassment of students because of their sexual orientation has some school districts thinking such counselors and programs are needed, not just in high schools, but in elementary schools as well.
"Historically, it has only been a high school issue," Love said. "We've had a few phone calls at the elementary level saying, 'We think some kids are asking questions about sexuality.' This is ground-breaking for us," Love said. "We're trying to figure out appropriate kinds of conversations. And the staff is not used to dealing with it."
Alan Horowitz, the sole full-time specialist at the "Out for Equity" program in the government schools of St. Paul, Minn., said his program offered high school support groups, gay/straight alliances, and guest speakers among its services. He said he was not surprised that younger pupils were asking questions about their sexuality.
"Times have changed so quickly," Horowitz said. "If you just look at the last six years and how many gay characters there are on TV. Over 30 have gay characters. This is a reflection on how society has changed."
Programs similar to those in Seattle and St. Paul are now likely to be established in Madison, where school board members voted 7-0 in February to hire the advocate for GLBTQ (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning) students before the end of the school year. Plans call for the new staffer to be a teacher or guidance counselor who will be expected to "improve the academic achievement, emotional security and personal acceptance" of students, while being a source of information about homosexuality for staff as well. The job has been posted internally, school officials said, and will be posted externally if necessary.
The Madison school board's action triggered a lot of debate within the city. Those who supported the hiring said the frequent harassment of homosexual students made it necessary. Opponents such as Terrell Smith of Madison, however, criticized the plan to hire a homosexual advocate because of the precedent it would create.
"The board wishes to protect students who are harassed. Should there be an advocate for Christian students that are discriminated against because they pray at lunch or bring a Bible to school? An advocate for the Muslim students who wish to pray on Fridays?" Smith wrote in a published newspaper public forum on the hiring.
Smith, who has a lesbian sister and a close friend dying of AIDS, also worried that the advocate would fail to speak with the students about the "destructiveness of the homosexual lifestyle."
Debra Lehmann of the greater Madison area said in the same newspaper forum that the hiring seemed to satisfy a special-interest agenda. A better use of tax dollars, Lehmann said, would be to hire an advocate for all persecuted children.
"Fill it with someone who would promote programs that teach children the seemingly lost art of respect and consideration for all people who may be different but not any less valuable," she wrote.
The Seattle school district offers two types of programs for students. There are the gay-straight alliances that are more political. And there are the discussion groups where the topics are wide-ranging and determined by whoever attends.
"The majority of them meet weekly at lunch, and it is just an optional thing. The doors are open, and you come if you like," Love said. "All the high schools have support groups, and those support groups are confidential."
In St. Paul, Horowitz said, he helped teachers respond to the harassment of students, even those who are not homosexual.
"Slurs get hurled at students that aren't gay. Words run rampant. And there is a direct correlation between any type of slurs and the school violence that we see happen," said Horowitz, who worked as a elementary school teacher for 11 years in New York before accepting his job in the Midwest about 18 months ago.
Love and Horowitz acknowledge that such programs have created concerns about counselors allegedly encouraging homosexuality. But Horowitz said science did not support that. "Sexual orientation is determined by age 6. It's not possible scientifically," he said.
Love pointed to some of the responses in the district's student survey as an endorsement of the program. "I'm so glad there's a group," Love quoted one student's response. "I can't imagine [not] having someplace for us to go."
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