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More equal than others

National | EDUCATION: School districts are offering special public schools for homosexuals, giving them a way out of bad, unsafe schools that others cannot escape

Issue: "Daniel of the Year 2003," Dec. 13, 2003

IT'S AN UNUSUAL PLACE FOR A school, the sliver of building sandwiched between Barnes & Noble and The Vitamin Shoppe on the corner of Astor Street in lower Manhattan. But then, Harvey Milk High is an unusual school: Students apply based on their sexual behavior, boys attend classes in women's clothing, and teachers assure all involved that the whole arrangement is perfectly normal.

Founded in 1985 with private money from the Hetrick-Martin Institute, an advocacy group for homosexual youth, Harvey Milk High is the Big Apple's all-gay school. The institution twice made headlines this summer: First, when it secured $3.2 million in taxpayer money to expand into a full-fledged high school that will ultimately serve 170 homosexual kids. Then, when state Sen. Ruben Diaz, a conservative Democrat, challenged the school's public funding in court, alleging, among other things, unlawful segregation.

Since then, Harvey Milk High has been in the news again. In early October, city attorneys moved to have Sen. Diaz's suit dismissed as baseless. Next, a brawl erupted Oct. 8 outside a Greenwich Village Starbucks between a gang of Harvey Milk students and a man driving a Lexus. NYPD officers told reporters the kids started the fight, but city newspapers gave that scant space. Instead, they devoted hundreds of words to students' claims that the man charged at them with a screwdriver after yelling that they were all "homos" bound for hell.

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Both the legal fight and the media's handling of the street fight point to what may be a new multiculturalism, one with an Animal Farm twist: All students are equal, but homosexual students are more equal than others. Although school-choice opponents emphasize educational equality for all children, racial-minority students nationwide remain trapped in violent schools as liberals block publicly funded choice programs that would provide safe harbor. Meanwhile "sexual minority" students-to use a gay-activist term-find haven in publicly funded schools that claim to cloister them for their own safety.

Gay and lesbian students in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) can choose "Oasis," a system of tax-funded satellite schools for homosexual students who claim to have faced ridicule or physical attacks on regular campuses. LAUSD launched Oasis in 1992 with one teacher; the school now employs 11 teachers and operates throughout the district.

"Our goal is not to segregate kids, but we do have separate schools for them if they want to go," said Deanne Neiman, director of the district's Education Compliance Office. "Our first preference is to try to cure the environment, and we try to make people understand that being different is OK."

Oasis special-education coordinator Joe Salvenini said the program, despite its public funding, hasn't attracted as much attention as Harvey Milk because it holds classes in donated space rather than on public-school property. "The district has on numerous occasions offered us school-district space to house our classrooms," Mr. Salvenini said. "But we refused because [gay and lesbian] students are afraid to go to school on those campuses."

Mr. Salvenini took exception to the idea that teaching homosexuals separately from other students could be viewed as segregation. "Our students have been segregated in comprehensive school settings.... [They've been] singled out, picked on, harassed, ridiculed, and beaten up by others.... If comprehensive schools were doing their job in making sure that all students are always protected, we wouldn't need these programs."

Matthew Staver, director of Liberty Counsel, the conservative legal group representing Sen. Diaz in court, said Mr. Salvenini's argument is one that segregationists used to defend racial segregation in public schools. "Their argument was that if blacks went to the same schools as whites, that whites would beat them up, so blacks needed to remain segregated for their own protection," Mr. Staver said. To reconstitute that argument now, in support of separate schools for homosexuals, "twists logic to meet an end goal: special treatment for gays, lesbians, transsexuals, and bisexuals."

Whether "special treatment" is a conscious goal, Harvey Milk students seem to fare better than some of their non-gay peers. While fat teens, geeky teens, and minority teens still face schoolyard violence in New York City-a series of assaults last year at Lafayette High School, including several specifically targeting Asian students, led the media to dub the school "Hell High"-the city has created a homogenous, "safe" environment especially for homosexuals. And where only 70 percent of students in the city's high schools graduate or earn GEDs within seven years of enrolling, 95 percent of Harvey Milk students graduated in 2003; 60 percent went on to college. A Wall Street Journal editorial called the school's students an "educational elite."

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