Gay students’ plight sparks lively discussion

Foundation sponsors seminar at The Lawrenceville School

By: Lea Kahn
   LAWRENCE — When Horace Mann first championed public schools, they were intended only for boys. It took years for girls to be accepted in the public schools, and many more years for blacks to be taught.
   Boys and girls, black and white, may attend public school together now, but the notion of equality for gays and lesbians still falls short in today’s public and private schools.
   That was the message delivered by Kevin Jennings of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, who spoke on the topic of making schools safe for gay and lesbian youths at The Lawrenceville School on Monday night. The seminar, attended by about 100 people including area educators, was co-sponsored by the Princeton Area Chapter of the Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, and Princeton HiTops.
   A recent survey conducted by the New York City-based agency revealed that 91 percent of the gay and lesbian students polled had heard homophobic comments in school. More than one-third of the students said they had heard teachers or coaches use homophobic epithets such as "faggot" or "dyke."
   Nearly half the students said they had been harrassed by "straight" students, and 14 percent said they had been physically harmed, Mr. Jennings said. About half said they suffered harassment on a daily basis.
   This is much more profound than teasing, because it makes the students feel they are unwanted, Mr. Jennings said. Allowing such behavior to occur gives the impression that it is OK to think less of gays or lesbians than anyone else, he said.
   "We act surprised when hate crimes occur," Mr. Jennings said, adding that those incidents have their roots in early childhood. The perpetrators of hate crimes and bias incidents are acting out what they learned as young children, that it is OK to act that way, he said.
   That is why it is important for parents and teachers to take action to stop it, Mr. Jennings said. Students expect the adults to act, and they are disappointed when they fail to do so, he said.
   The median age when gay and lesbian children begin to discover that they are attracted to the same gender is 11½, he said. Whom can they talk to about this? They can’t talk to their parents or their friends, he said, so they turn to the only other adults with whom they have significant contact — their teachers.
   It is important for teachers to intervene when they hear homophobic language, Mr. Jennings said. If the schools do not take action, the gay and lesbian children begin to feel isolated — and isolated students are the ones most at risk. They feel unimportant and scorned, he said.
   Schools have a moral responsibility to support all children, he said. The schools must serve every child. The real test for a school is whether it can teach children to respect others whom they do not like or with whom they disagree, he said.
   In the Princeton Regional School District, the Peaceful Schools program has been initiated in the elementary schools, said Dr. Jeff Graber, assistant superintendent of schools. The school district does not want to wait until students reach middle school or high school to teach tolerance, he said.
   Princeton High School Principal John Kazmark said the school recently put a display on gay history near the front of PHS.
   "You have to look for ways to get the conversation going," he said.
   Other participants on the panel were Dr. Max Riley, superintendent of schools in Lawrence; Carlton Tucker, principal of Upper School at Princeton Day School; Catherine Boczkowski, dean of faculty at the Lawrenceville School; and Dan Profitt, principal of Lawrence High School.