An Open Letter to Schools Chancellor Harold Levy

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:55

    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 8).

    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.