Monday, August 15, 2011

Maybe We Can Live With Some Segregation

Faithful reader Boston Dreamer asks:

What are your thoughts on places like Harvey Milk High School in New York? Part of me sees the need for such an affirming institution, and the other side of me sees it as a cop out of sorts, allowing a school district to send 'those students' elsewhere rather than reforming the culture of the traditional school.

Just for some background, the Harvey Milk School is designed for, but not limited to, queer students. It is a fully accredited high school that is now run by the New York Department of Education. It has faced controversy since it opened in 1985, mostly from conservatives who want think that is an indoctrination process, or that it is somehow discriminatory. Some progressives have also criticized it, saying that it is a form of segregation to separate the queer kids from the straighties.

But here's the thing: Like it says on the front page of the school's website,
In an ideal world, all students who are considered at-risk would be safely integrated into all NYC public schools, but in the real world, at-risk students need a place like the Harvey Milk High School. HMHS is one of the many NYC small schools that provide safety, community, and high achievement for students not able to benefit from more traditional school environments.
That's... basically it, really. If the Harvey Milk School is helping kids get through high school and have a safer, healthier adolescence, I'm all for it. I think that sometimes we assume integration is always the best thing, but that's an oversimplification. Historians have long talked about the ways that integration was harmful to black communities, for instance: community schools closed, black teachers and administrators lost their jobs, black parents were made to feel unwelcome in their children's new schools, the kids were not necessarily better served, schools became internally segregated, etc. There is something to be said for having a school built by and serving your community. Not, of course, that segregation should ever be the law. It's just that it's not so simple as "integration is always a good thing for everyone forever." Some people benefit from these situations. And it's hard for me to see who loses in this particular case.

Queer communities have to form themselves, they aren't crowds we're born into. Consider that these kids might have parents, families, churches, and communities that think homosexuality is a sin or that gay people are fine as long as they stay in Chelsea or whatever. If they can go to a school that affirms their identity, they're going to be so much better off. I realize that they'd have to be out to their parents to go to the school, and that that could be a source of drama too. But I would rather this place exist than not exist.

Schools should be safe. They aren't always, and having zero-tolerance policies on queer bashing isn't always going to solve the problem. At Harvey Milk, kids are safer, more likely to graduate, and able to be open about who they are. I wouldn't throw that over for some "good liberal" hand-wringing about segregation, to be honest.

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