An Open Letter to Schools Chancellor Harold Levy

Written by Doug Ireland on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.

When a second question pointed
out that this response was unacceptably flippant and offensive, you sidestepped
by responding that "The Board [of Education] has a policy, and I support
that policy" (without ever saying what that policy is). And when you got
a question about what you would do to protect gay students–or students
perceived to be gay–from verbal, psychological or physical harassment in
the schools you run, you avoided answering by making a vague, "We’re
against all forms of harassment" statement. Only New York 1, which broadcast
the meeting live, later reported on this appalling performance.

You may think AIDS education
is a laughing matter and, as you put it, just "politics," but in fact
your response was that of a politician, not that of an educator with the well-being
of his young charges uppermost in his mind. Your response to all three questions,
in fact, can only be put down to either heartless opportunism or ignorance.

Let’s be charitable
and assume you were simply ignorant. The latest available figures from the Centers
for Disease Control show that half of all new HIV infections are among the under-21
age group and growing, particularly in large cities (with young women of color
disproportionately hit). We all know that effective safe-sex education in our
city’s schools, of the kind your predecessor Joe Fernandez tried to institute,
was emasculated by subsequent chancellors at the bidding of Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
All references to homosexuality were censored from the health curriculum, and
condom-use demonstrations were banned from the classrooms. They’re available
only in private at the request of students–but since kids are rarely told
of this option, they almost never ask, especially since they’re afraid
of the embarrassment (and there’s a parental opt-out).

Current board policy, which
you wouldn’t explain, does require that every student receive at least
six lessons a year on AIDS education, and requires that condoms be available
on request (but only in high school). Waiting until high school to teach kids
how to protect themselves just isn’t working, as the CDC infection statistics
show; and there is a raft of studies documenting that growing numbers of kids
are becoming sexually active at much earlier ages. Unless the importance of
condom use is impressed upon these kids before they start having sex, it doesn’t
take. Indeed, eroticizing the condom as part of sexual play from the beginning
is a sine qua non of effective safe-sex education.

But even the current board
policy isn’t working. A study by the Youth Education Lifeline (YELL), an
AIDS youth advocacy group, shows that only 11 percent of city schools are in
full compliance with the board’s mandate. There’s an enormous variance
from school district to school district and from school to school. Worse, AIDS
education training for teachers in health curricula has been cut to next to
nothing. Most classroom sex education is carried out by gym teachers, among
whom homophobia is notoriously rampant. Condoms are, in fact, unavailable in
the vast majority of city high schools, even on request. The board was supposed
to have conducted an evaluation of AIDS education effectiveness and compliance,
but that was two years ago, and AIDS groups are being told that the evaluation
is still "in progress." After two years? Get real.

Furthermore, the board has
no policy to protect lesbian and gay kids from harassment. And while the board
has never conducted any survey to see how much of it is going on specifically
in city schools, one can get a pretty good idea from looking at national numbers.
A study of 500 gay students in 32 states released last September by the Gay,
Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) reported that almost half said
they didn’t feel safe in their schools; 90 percent reported verbal harassment;
27.6 percent experienced physical harassment; and 13.7 percent were subjected
to physical assault.

Although the Clinton administration,
under pressure from state governments sympathetic to the Christian right, removed
all questions regarding sexual orientation from its National Youth Risk Behavior
Survey, some states have done their own. In a survey of nearly 4000 high school
students by the Massachusetts Dept. of Education, kids who self-identified as
gay, lesbian or bisexual were seven times more likely then other kids to have
skipped school because they felt unsafe (22.2 percent versus 3.3). A 1997 study
by the Vermont Dept. of Health found that gay kids were threatened or injured
with a weapon at school three times more than straight kids (24 percent versus

In pooh-poohing the questions
on homophobic harassment and on AIDS the other night in Queens, you said your
job was only to raise reading and math scores. Well, higher test scores mean
nothing if you’re dead from HIV. And it’s very hard to study when
you’re being harassed. As Jon Lasser, an Austin, TX, school psychologist
who studied hundreds of gay kids in the school system there, puts it, "Many
of them have a form of post-traumatic stress syndrome that affects their schoolwork–fear
of getting hurt really shakes them up and makes it hard to concentrate."

Taking school superintendents
to hear Isaac Stern is all well and good, but on your next field trip you ought
to take them to Harvey Milk High School, which is part of the city system. There
you and they could listen to the all-gay student body’s stories of the
kinds of daily threats and harassment that drove them out of the regular schools
(underfunded Harvey Milk has a waiting list of hundreds of kids desperate to
escape from the reign of terror they experience in the other schools under your
supervision). If you can’t (or won’t) try to persuade the current
board to adopt policies to protect gay kids, at least you should speak out publicly
in support of state Sen. Tom Duane’s Dignity for All Students Act, modeled
on the law of that same name passed by California. The Duane bill would bar
discrimination and harassment in the schools, including on the basis of sexual
orientation or gender as well as race and ethnicity; create programs to foster
harassment-free school environments; and set up a reporting mechanism to compile
data on bias incidents against students (the bill was approved by the Assembly
Education Committee on May 23 by a 20-7 vote). So far, you’ve been silent
on the bill (for that matter, so has the politically ambitious board president,
Bill Thompson).

If 110 Livingston St. has
failed to protect all our kids from HIV and our gay kids from harassment it’s
in large measure because of the potent opposition from the homophobic Catholic
Archdiocese and the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. Now that’s politics.
But allowing these religious primitives to have a stranglehold on safe-sex and
anti-bias education and protection programs flouts our country’s historic
tradition of the separation of church and state. Instead, you should set an
example by speaking out against the harassment of our gay kids and on the need
to protect all kids from AIDS. That’s what real leadership means.

Doug Ireland is a contributing
editor for
POZ, the national monthly for the HIV-positive community.