At 2:30 p.m. on September 11, teachers at the Harvey Milk School – the Board of Education’s high school on Astor Place for gay kids – let their 50 students out early. The next day, the teachers learned that many students had been harassed. “There are all these stories of people coming together,” says Bari Mattes, the chairman of the Hetrick-Martin Institute, which runs the school. “But there were still people who, on that horrible day, found it in themselves to call people ‘faggot.’ “
That’s not the only damage the school has sustained. Before the attack, executive director Verna Eggleston announced she was leaving to work for Mike Bloomberg’s campaign (she’s now his welfare commissioner). Meanwhile, since September 11, nearly every New York nonprofit not directly linked to the tragedy has been feeling the pinch, and David Mensah, HMI’s new executive director, recently told the board that the group stands to be $1 million in the hole by June 30. This just after the Board of Ed had finally smiled upon plans to triple the school’s size. “It’s hard to turn kids away who are on a waiting list and don’t have a safe place to learn,” says Hilary Swank, who became the school’s spokesperson after starring in Boys Don’t Cry.
The board has raised $200,000, but if the rest of the million isn’t met, it won’t just be the expansion that’s tabled. “We couldn’t survive,” says Mattes. “With a budget of about $4 million, we couldn’t keep the doors open.”
The institute (hmi.org) is already much more than a place to slog through physics. It feeds 50 to 150 kids every night, some of whom are homeless. There are arts activities, talent shows, a prom. Board members are both daunted by the money gap and energized by the challenge. “Here we finally have our goal of making the Harvey Milk School a full-fledged high school,” says Dennis Hranitzky, an attorney at Debevoise & Plimpton. “We’ve wanted to do this for some time. A lot of these kids have histories of being harassed. We hope we can help make it a world where it’s much less likely to happen.”