The Harvey Milk High School Political Shell Game

Have you ever seen one of those corner shell games where the guy places a small object under one of three cups and then shifts the cups around and dares people to find the object? The key to “losing” the careful focus of those trying to keep their eye on the right cup is the distraction of all that shifting back and forth.

Distraction is the Object of the Game

In fact, as a magician friend of mine once told me, much of magic is distraction, as when a performer magically finds a coin in your ear or invisibly floats a card from his hand to a hat. The key to all of this, my friend assured me, is to distract people enough so that they do not realize what you are really doing. So, what does all of this have to do with the Harvey Milk High School?

There has been much debate since New York City officials voted to direct public funding toward expansion of the Harvey Milk School, an alternative high school established by the Hetrick-Martin Institute, a gay-rights advocacy group. The stated purpose of the school, as outlined by David D. Mensa, the director of Hetrick-Martin, is to provide a “safe haven” for harassed, abused, and brutalized “gay and transgender teens” unable to learn in the regular public school environment. In a time of budgetary problems, spending issues, and service cutbacks, New York City has decided that it is a “good idea”, according to Mayor Bloomberg, to direct 3.2 million taxpayer dollars toward this expansion.

As would be expected, there has been a considerable moral outcry against what amounts to a municipal endorsement of indoctrinating children in order to push the gay agenda into the mainstream. Interestingly, however, there has also been an outcry by at other camps as well, and it is those arguments which I wish to focus on here.

Government Supported Segregation Critics such as George Washington University Law School Professor Jonathan Turley, State Senator Ruben Diaz, and Michael Long, head of the New York Conservative Party, have all observed that New York City’s decision to publicly fund this school is nothing less than government supported segregation. The stated purpose of the school is to take certain students out of the general student population, to isolate them, to place walls around them.

Supporters of the school retort that there are already numerous alternative schools taking certain students out of the “mainstream” based on special talents, or unique goals and career interests and even some based on gender. People such as Randi Weingarten, head of the teachers union, have wondered out loud why there has been so much ranting about Harvey Milk when schools such as The Young Women’s Leadership Academy have been set up with less debate. While there may have been more debate about Harvey Milk, there has, in fact, been considerable debate on the educational and constitutional validity of setting up publicly funded schools based on gender and other factors. The Leadership Academy has been under particular scrutiny in this regard. Even the National Organization of Women (NOW) and The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), liberal bastions, have argued that single gender education of any type is discriminatory. These groups state that separate has rarely meant equal and that efforts should be made to increase equality within an environment rather than create greater division.

We see, therefore, that opposition to this decision by New York City is not limited to what gay rights advocates call “extremist, right-wing, religious, homophobic zealots” but actually includes some of the most prominent proponents of the gay agenda. These groups, like many others, argue that the government should not endorse separation for what ever reason.

Is This Educationally Sound?

As a public school teacher for three years and an educator for most of my life, I have been drilled in the concept of inclusion and “least restrictive environment” for students with disabilities. We do no good and actually harm students when we separate them and isolate them from the mainstream educational environment because they are different — or so the argument goes.

It is claimed that students will learn to fend for themselves and their classmates will ultimately learn to accept them if we keep as many students as possible together. Even federal legislation such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and its 1997 amendments have been enacted to further and enforce this notion. In view of this, why is it suddenly a “good idea” to reverse this philosophy for gay students? It makes no logical sense to say that a blind, deaf, learning disabled, overweight, myopic, minority, or short student is best served by being included with all others students but that a “gay” student is best served by being provided with a “safe haven” to be surrounded by only others like himself. This is a simple contradiction and selective application of the concept of inclusion.

The absurd message is “it is good educationally to keep different students together except in the case of gay students.”

The “Safe Haven” Slope is very slippery. One of the most common cautions I heard while in Law School was that all policy decisions must be made with the slippery slope in mind. The slippery slope concept means that you must be prepared and willing to deal with the natural, logical, extension of your decisions applied to similar situations. Once we use taxpayer money to isolate children based on the idea that we must provide a “safe haven” for them, we are going to get into logical trouble. The defenders of The Harvey Milk School argue that “segregation” is not the issue and that the real intent here is providing a safe and comfortable educational environment, free from harassment, abuse, and brutality. As Michael Long and others have pointed out, does this not then beg for similar schools for everything from overweight students to those who wear glasses or stutter?

In fact, as one who has worked in an average New York City public school, I can assure you that many students, teachers, and staff are faced with daily abuse, harassment, and even brutality for which no alternative school has been set up as a “good idea”. The advocates of Harvey Milk cling to the “safe haven” argument in order to avoid the segregation angle but they just create another set of inconsistencies. Let me assure you, most of the New York City public schools are not a safe haven for the many kids, teachers, and staff members who must attend them daily, so let’s begin building a thousand schools to provide safe havens for all of those people as well!

A Double Surrender

New York City’s decision to direct millions of dollars in taxpayer money to extend the Harvey Milk School is evidence of a double surrender.

First, the city is surrendering to the political and societal power of the gay rights movement and agenda. Fearful of being branded homophobic or intolerant and paralyzed by the shadow of the gay movement’s political clout officials have surrendered common sense, logic, and fairness. A proposal that would be laughed off the drawing board if submitted by any other interest group is labeled as a “good idea” when proposed in the interests of gays. Obviously the perceived political advantage of this double standard is such a “good idea” that it trumps all the financial woes and budget cuts everyone else is supposed to endure.

The second, and perhaps more tragic, surrender which this move shows is the surrender of the New York City public schools to the bullies. A fellow teacher was threatened by one of her students. Instead of working to correct the student, the school principal told the teacher to “win him over”! New York City has given up even trying to create a more disciplined, tolerant educational environment that works for all students regardless of their differences.

By citing a safety argument as a justification for funding Harvey Milk School, the city and its public school system is throwing up its hands and admitting it is powerless to create a safe environment for such children. In fact, statistics and reports of school violence show that the city and its schools cannot create a safe, positive, nurturing environment for many of its students, teachers, and staff.

Answering Three Common Challenges

The three most common challenges to critics of The Harvey Milk School all miss the point of why it is wrong for the city to use public money to extend it. First, many claim that anyone who opposes this move is just homophobic or has a gay bias and intolerance. The fact that NOW and The ACLU are against any kind of educational segregation, including this one, and that even many gay activists say that this move actually hurts their cause should be enough to silence the bias claims.

Secondly, there are those who claim that this school is just like any other alternative school out there, which is a false claim. While other alternative schools exist — established for students with similar special talents, goals, or interests — those established just on gender grounds have been controversial in a way these others are not. Besides this school has not been established to bring together students with similar education needs but rather with “safety” as the stated purpose — something that applies as a rationale for no other alternative school. Imagine the outcry if we were to seek to establish a school for girls just to keep them “safe” from sexual harassment! Some want to use the safety claim against the critics of the school by asking where the critics were when these students were being harassed, abused, or brutalized. But this tactic is the weakest of all.

Even a casual observer of New York City’s public schools knows that safety is a concern for all students and staff. It is a concern that cuts across racial, gender, and sexual orientation lines, and therefore one might just a well wonder where the school administrators are and were while all students and workers daily face a losing battle to keep some semblance of discipline in a failing system. Thousands of serious students struggle to find the safe, positive, nurturing educational environment which the Harvey Milk School purports to provide for its target students. The fact that so many gay students will still remain in the general student population further attests to the ridiculousness of this safety claim.

Opposition to New York City’s decision to direct public funds to extend The Harvey Milk School is not limited to and does not depend on so-called extremist, religious zealot positions. Those who wish to portray it this way are playing a corner shell game. They claim it will provide salvation to oppressed gay students and that anyone opposing the move is just a bigot, but the truth is that it will only provide this “relief” for a fraction of gay students. It will not help in solving the general problem of public school discipline, violence, and safety. It will create more divisions than solutions. We have our eyes wide open and we won't be fooled by this one.

References and Suggested Readings

Anna Cock, “Milking School outing for all it's worth” The Advertiser, August 11, 2003

Chuck Colson, “Questionable Purposes: The Harvey Milk School” Breakpoint, August 8, 2003

Chaka Ferguson “Critics Blast NY School for Gay Pupils” New York Newsday, August 25, 2003

Andy Humm, “Education in America: The Harvey Milk School” Gotham Gazette, August, 2003

Cynthia Needham and Luis Perez, “Gay School Divide Grows” New York Newsday, August 1, 2003

© Copyright 2003 Catholic Exchange

Gabriel Garnica is a licensed attorney and educator with over 20 years teaching experience at the college, business school, and middle school levels. He has a BA in Psychology from St. John's University in New York and a J.D. from The New York University School of Law. Mr. Garnica writes extensively on spiritual and educational issues and conducts seminars on time management, leadership, and personal development.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage