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The Harvey Milk School Has No Right to Exist. Discuss.


Turley acknowledges that gay students face violence in the public-school system. But removing them and placing them in their own school is not the solution. “High schools are the most important stage of an individual’s enculturation as a citizen,” he says. “It’s in high school that they define not just themselves, but their role in society. So we should want to have interaction between gay and lesbian and straight students. This is our last opportunity to shape and monitor behavior, and we need to teach the values of pluralistic society before these people graduate, because for many of them it will be our last opportunity to exercise that level of supervision. To simply remove the object of their prejudice does not deal with the underlying prejudice.”

The bullies, he says, need to change—not by becoming gay advocates, or even by dropping their religious objections to homosexuality. “What they do need to do is conform to the requirement that those views cannot take the form of violence or harassment.” That’s never going to happen, Turley argues, when you’ve got a school like Harvey Milk that “creates this idea that gay and lesbian students are somehow different, needing special protections, some type of insular, special class that can’t stand for their own rights.”

Turley lays the blame for the school’s misguided idealism on the doorstep of the current mayor. “I think Harvey Milk High School is an enormous cop-out by the Bloomberg administration,” he says. “It would be far more expensive to deal with the underlying problem: to train teachers, to monitor classrooms, to punish prejudicial students. All of that comes with high financial and political costs; it is much easier to isolate these students and claim it as a benefit.”

Lately, there has been some evidence to suggest that the Bloomberg administration has begun to reckon with the high political cost of championing the Harvey Milk High School—not to mention the dollar cost: Since August 2003, the city has been paying lawyers, with taxpayer funds, to defend itself against the Diaz suit. When the school first opened, Mayor Bloomberg told reporters, “I think everybody feels it’s a good idea because some of the kids who are gays and lesbians have been constantly harassed and beaten in other schools. It lets them get an education without having to worry.”

But today, the mayor’s office does not return calls about the school. Another ominous sign of cooling passions within City Hall for the Harvey Milk High School are recent reports that it failed to get promised funding increases to expand from 100 to 170 students. Spokespersons for the school deny that funds were withheld, and say that the decision not to expand was made by the school itself, which feared “overcrowding”—a nonsensical claim, given that the $3.2 million renovation and expansion was expressly predicated on planning for an ultimate enrollment of 170 kids. And when the Department of Education’s Region 9 superintendent, Peter Heaney, finally got on the phone to talk about Harvey Milk, he showed every symptom of a man trying to put as much distance between himself and the school as possible. “This happened just as I was moving into the position of regional superintendent,” he says of the school’s creation, “so I can’t take credit for the decision.” Nor can he offer anything but the most lukewarm appraisal of the school academically. “I still have a lot of work to do instructionally with that school,” he says. “This is still a school where we have a ways to go.” Heaney also makes it abundantly clear that whatever mandate existed when the school was created no longer applies. “What distracts me is the misperception that it’s meant to be a gay school,” he says. “We don’t want it to be a gay school.” Principal Rossi also backs away from proclaiming the school as a bold and courageous experiment in gay rights. Reiterating that Harvey Milk is “absolutely not” a gay high school, he says, “It’s a total misperception. We’re a high school. We’re open to any New York City student who’s interested in attending. It really doesn’t matter who you are, in terms of your sexual orientation.”

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