Wednesday, July 30, 2003

Punish the victim.

Student on student harassment is a problem at every school. The only good solution is to establish an environment where the victim may disclose the harassment with the certainty that the harasser will be punished, and that the punishment will end the harassment. This solution requires vigilance on the part of parents, teachers, administrators, and even fellow students. But it is the only good solution.

New York City didn't choose the good solution. Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg, having admitted that "some of the kids who are gays and lesbians have been constantly harassed and beaten in other schools," has decided to remove the victims of this harassment from the general student population and place them in another school:

The Harvey Milk High School, an expansion of a 1984 city program consisting of two small classrooms for gay students, will enroll about 100 students and will open in the fall.
"I think everybody feels that it's a good idea because some of the kids who are gays and lesbians have been constantly harassed and beaten in other schools," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said at a briefing today. "It lets them get an education without having to worry. It solves a discipline problem. And from a pedagogical point of view, this administration - and previous administrations - have thought it was a good idea and we'll continue with that."
The school, at 2 Astor Place in the East Village, is undergoing a $3.2 million renovation approved by the old Board of Education last year.
On its Web site, the Hetrick-Martin Institute[, a gay-rights youth advocacy group that has managed and financed the program since its inception,] describes the Harvey Milk School as "the nation's first accredited public high school designed to meet the needs of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth (LGBTQ)."
It says the school "offers LGBTQ youth an opportunity to obtain a secondary education in a safe and supportive environment. � We believe that success requires the ability to respect and value the diverse human community."
The school is named after San Francisco's first openly gay city supervisor, Harvey Milk, who was assassinated in 1978 along with Mayor George Moscone.

Few other than the most desperate victims of harassment would consider this an attractive option. Gay students don't appear from nothing; their only relationship is not with their harasser. They've attended school with their peers since kindergarten. They have friendships and relationships that would be disrupted, if not destroyed, by such a transfer. They have scholastic plans based on the schools they expect to attend. Few would voluntarily choose this; no one should feel compelled to simply to avoid harassment.

Bloomberg says this "solves a discipline problem," but I don't see how. The source of the discipline problem - the harasser - is not punished. They're not removed from their school. Their victim is. How does this discourage harassment? If anything, it encourages harassment by capitulating to the harasser's demands and in doing so confirming the harasser's perception that the victim is different and deserving of punishment.

That said, if it's either this or nothing, this is better. As noted at The Fifty Minute Hour,

Would it be a better idea to implement programs in the public schools to meet those needs [for support and understanding that simply aren't being met in the public school system]? Probably. I think most people, including advocates of the new school, would agree that it would be much better if we could make the New York City Public Schools a place where students of all orientations felt welcome. But that's easier said than done. And while we're trying to do that - and I hope that this school won't make the district abdicate its responsibility to improve the climate at other schools - gay students are at risk.

I hear that, but I wonder: if New York City is willing and able to place the victims of harassment in a particular school, why aren't they similarly willing and able to place the perpetrators of harassment in a particular school? Why are the choices this or nothing, and why are the victims forced to choose? Really, is there any aspect of this solution that considers the well-being of the victims above that of their harassers?