Gay and lesbian students in the nation's public schools face pervasive discrimination not only from peers but also from teachers, administrators and other school officials who condone the harassment or participate in it, a watchdog group alleged Wednesday.
Many of these students live a nightmarish existence at school, where they encounter a barrage of insults, fear for their lives and often spend their days in utter isolation, according to a report by Human Rights Watch. The report was based on interviews with nearly 300 students and school officials in seven states, including California.
The group charged that nearly all states fail to provide legal protection, leaving most gay and lesbian students to fend for themselves in an unforgiving environment that exists on many campuses.
"What these kids experience is devastating," Widney Brown, coauthor of the report, said at a news conference at Fairfax High School in Los Angeles. "Many drop out and end up on the streets. In worst cases, we have kids committing suicide because no one stood up to protect them."
Researchers estimate that 5% to 6% of the nation's public school students are gay, lesbian or bisexual--nearly 2.5 million students. The count does not include those who consider themselves "transgender": cross-dressers and others whose behavior extends beyond the norm for girls and boys.
Just five states, including California, have laws to protect the rights of gay and lesbian students. Here, a year-old statute protects anyone in public schools, colleges and universities from harassment and discrimination based on sexual orientation. Victims can file complaints with their school districts, the state Department of Education or file lawsuits.
By contrast, there is no federal law to expressly protect the rights of gay and lesbian students, even though other laws guard against racial discrimination and other forms of harassment.
Still, federal officials say they take the problem seriously.
"We work hard to provide guidance to schools at all levels so they can understand their obligations with respect to discrimination and harassment," said Lindsey Kozberg, a spokesperson for U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige. "Our overarching goal is to provide a safe and appropriate atmosphere for learning."
But the Human Rights Watch report claimed that safe atmosphere is missing on many campuses and that school staff are at least partly to blame.
Many gay students who were interviewed for the study, titled "Hatred in the Hallways," said their teachers or administrators offered little help when asked to intervene in acts of harassment. In some cases, school officials looked the other way or even participated, the report said.
It cites the experience of Derek Henkle, who appeared at the Fairfax High news conference.
Henkle said that peers at his Nevada high school taunted him with epithets such as "fag," "fairy" and "homo." They spat on him and threw food at him. One day, he said, a group of students surrounded him in the school parking lot, threw a lasso around his neck and threatened to tie him to the back of a truck.
Henkle, now 20 and living in California, said he reported the harassment to school officials but was told to keep quiet. He asked for a transfer to an alternative school but the principal there told him that "he wouldn't have me acting like a faggot at school."
"Going to school for me was like being a prisoner of war," said Henkle, who has since sued the school district for allegedly violating his constitutional rights to free speech and equal protection.
Human Rights Watch released its report at Fairfax High because the campus has a track record of reaching out to gay and lesbian students. Since 1984, the school has run a support and counseling group known as Project 10. The successful approach has spread to many campuses in Los Angeles and other school districts.