Earlier this month, Florida's Parent-Teacher Association for public schools, or PTA, adopted a landmark, yet controversial, resolution. Among PTA's, Florida's became the second in the nation to specifically commit itself to protecting homosexual students from harassment and abuse. The resolution overcame opposition from within the PTA and beyond.
Joseph Zolobczuk is a college student and member of Project Yes, a south Florida group that advocates on behalf of gay youth. He says his high school years were painful, as he grappled with his homosexuality and the cruelty of his peers.
"I would be walking through the halls and kids would say (about me), 'He does not date girls,' Joseph recalls. "I kept to myself, because, basically, in high school everybody just wants to fit in. The harassment got worse and worse. It escalated to the point where I would walk into the lunchroom and kids would throw food at me. They would call me 'faggot.' It was very hurtful. I lost a lot of friends and no one wanted to be around me. I was very lonely."
Joseph says many teachers were aware of his suffering yet appeared indifferent to his plight. This, he says, greatly heightened his anguish and his sense of isolation and vulnerability.
Martha Fugate, Director of Project Yes, says Joseph's experiences are hardly unusual. "Over 90 percent of students hear anti-gay comments in schools every day," she says. "Thirty-three percent of all teenage suicides are committed by gay and lesbian youth. Because many times they are taunted viciously in school, or the pressure of trying to fit in a place where they do not feel they fit in, they have an almost 30 percent high school dropout rate."
Similar statistics are cited by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
But at least in Florida, things may be beginning to change. For years, Project Yes and the local Miami-Dade County PTA have lobbied the statewide PTA organization to work to protect gay and lesbian students. Two weeks ago, the Florida PTA adopted a resolution pledging a concerted effort to ensure that public schools function as "harassment-free zones" in which bullying and abuse based on sexual orientation are not tolerated.
Just how the initiative will be implemented is not yet clear. But a spokesman for Miami-Dade County's public schools, John Schuster, says he believes the effort, however it plays out, will be worthwhile. "Sensitivity training such as this is very valuable because it keeps kids from dropping out," he says, "it helps students that are rejected by their parents, and it keeps them from becoming runaways. There are very few people who could argue with something like that."
Yet opposition has been formidable, according to Miami-Dade PTA Chairperson Karin Brown. "Absolutely. =At the state level, and even in our own council we have run into resistance," she says.
Indeed, the Florida PTA's adoption of the resolution constituted a reversal, since just last year the organization rejected the very same initiative without even debating the topic.
Outside forces are also in play. Anthony Verdugo, who heads the Miami chapter of the conservative religious group, the Christian Coalition, says it has long been the duty of public schools to protect students from all forms of harassment. He says specifying gay students as a group in need of protection is unnecessary and reflects a thinly-veiled political agenda. "The (existing) laws in the state of Florida are more than adequate to protect children from harassment," he says. "This organization, Project Yes, represents a fringe group in our community that is attempting to legitimize a destructive behavior (homosexuality)."
But Project Yes Director Martha Fugate insists there is no goal to legitimize anything. "That is like saying, 'Are we going to legitimize trees?' There are trees, and if there is a tree in the middle of the road it is nice not to crash into the tree," Ms. Fugate says. "There are gay and lesbian kids. They are in schools, and they are currently existing in very unsafe conditions."
Ms. Fugate says, whether one opposes homosexuality or not, there should be agreement on the need for schools where all students, gay and heterosexual, can learn in a positive and supportive environment.