It may have the backing of educational, medical, and mental health experts, but a new booklet aimed at creating a safe learning environment for gay and lesbian students isn’t going over well in some schools.

The 12-page booklet distributed to schools in November, called “Just the Facts about Sexual Orientation and Youth: A Primer for Principals, Educators, and School Personnel,” was endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Association of School Administrators, the American Federation of Teachers, and the American Psychological Association.

But the booklet has drawn fire from conservative educators and other organizations who call it “gay propaganda.”

Antioch, Calif., schools chief Lee Jenkins said he probably would not distribute the booklet.

“Our responsibility is to teach math, science, history, geography, English,” he said. “It is not our mission to be involved in those controversies. That’s for society at large.”

The booklet’s distributors, on the other hand, say it “provides information that will help school administrators and educators to create safe and healthy environments in which all students can achieve to the best of their ability.”

Protecting gay and lesbian students from harassment and physical violence is becoming a serious concern for some school officials. And whether they like it or not, school officials can’t afford to ignore the issue any longer, the booklet’s supporters say.

In January, a sixteen-year-old New Jersey high school student was allegedly beaten on school grounds by a fourteen-year old for being homosexual, and school officials did not report the incident to the police.

Though charges had not been filed at press time, police are investigating the incident as a bias crime after the alleged victim went to police later that same day. Several days before the incident, the younger boy reportedly had taunted the older boy about being gay and threatened to “get people to jump,” or attack, the older boy.

Principal Mike Navarro declined to comment on why he did not call the police after the incident was reported.

In an unrelated incident, a former Nevada high school student has filed a lawsuit against Washoe County school officials, claiming they failed to stop verbal and physical harassment inflicted by classmates because he is gay.

Derek Henkle alleged school officials denied him equal protections because of his sexual orientation and denied him free speech rights by allegedly urging him to hide his sexual orientation.

Henkle’s suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Reno, Nev., is being handled by the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, a New York-based gay rights organization.

School district officials had no immediate comment. But Jon W. Davidson, a Lambda attorney in Los Angeles, said school officials had a responsibility to protect Henkle.

“These school officials discriminated against Derek in how they handled his complaints of really horrific harassment, assaults, intimidation, and discrimination that he was suffering at the hands of other students,” Davidson said during a conference call with reporters. “Instead, they treated him as the problem.”

Henkle, now 19 and living in Atlanta, said he was forced to quit school two years ago because of the intimidation. He eventually received a high-school equivalency certificate but said he feels cheated out of a diploma and educational and career opportunities.

At Washoe High, Davidson said the principal repeatedly told Henkle not to tell people he was gay.

“If other students try to harass or abuse students who are out, the solution is not to tell lesbians and gay students to go back in the closet,” Davidson said.

Massachusetts is one state that is taking the initiative to make sure gay and lesbian students receive protection, according to David LaFontaine, Chair of the Massachusetts Governor’s Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth. The state provides its high schools with Safe Schools grants to form gay/straight alliances in order to safeguard gay students from abuse.

“Educators and administrators don’t realize how mush harassment and violence these students suffer in schools,” LaFontaine said. “Every high school has gay and lesbian students, whether people realize it or not. This is a population that needs real protection in school.”

“For the children who project what is typically though of as a gay image, they suffer tremendously,” added Ellen Schwartz of the Bergen County chapter of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. “It is every parent of a gay child’s nightmare that our children will be the victim of a hate crime.”

Besides raising awareness of the potential for in-school violence against gay students, “Just the Facts about Sexual Orientation and Youth” also expresses concerns about the potential harm posed by “reparative therapy” and other techniques intended to change sexual orientation.

“I think this is a history-changing moment,” said Kevin Jennings, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, a New York organization devoted to ending anti-gay bias in the schools. “The entire mainstream education and mental health establishment has said that it isn’t lesbian, gay, and bisexual students who need to change, it is the conditions in our schools that need to change.”

Conservative groups have attacked the booklet, saying that it’s based on politics, not science.

“They’re saying they want to present factual information on homosexuality, but we believe that they’re presenting propaganda,” said John Paulk, a homosexuality and gender analyst for Focus on the Family, a Colorado Christian group that holds Love Won Out conferences where reparative therapy is endorsed and participants are taught how to combat what they say are pro-gay messages children receive in schools.

Janet Parshall, chief spokeswoman for the conservative Family Research Council, also condemned the coalition’s mailing. “If they’re going to talk about ‘the facts,’ here’s a fact: All the major religions of the world consider homosexuality wrong,” she said.

Deanna Duby of the National Education Association, a leading union of schoolteachers, said the coalition was formed after members heard about the Love Won Out conferences and decided a response was needed. Duby, who helped create the booklet, said the publication was approved by the association’s leadership, including its president, Bob Chase.

Most of the organizations represented by the coalition, Duby said, had already passed resolutions on their own condemning reparative therapy and endorsing the need for “safe environments” for gay students.

The booklet is divided into chapters, including sections on how sexual orientation develops; reparative therapy, “transformational ministries” and other religion-based efforts that try to help homosexuals change their sexual orientation; and laws protecting gay men and lesbians from discrimination.

“Because of the religious nature of ‘transformational ministry,'” the booklet advises, “endorsement or promotion of such ministry by officials or employees of a public school district in a school-related context could raise constitutional problems.”

The publication states that “therapy directed specifically at changing sexual orientation is contraindicated, since it can provoke guilt and anxiety while having little or no potential for achieving changes in orientation.”

Five of the organizations in the coalition contributed money to print and distribute the booklet, as did Michael Dively, a philanthropist and former member of the Michigan Legislature who is gay.

Responding to the booklet, Paulk, of Focus on the Family, said that no scientific studies had been done on reparative therapy, and that organizations that have “debunked” the technique were acting on the basis of political motives, not scientific evidence.

Paulk also defended his organization’s efforts to promote in schools the conservative view of homosexuality as abnormal.

“Parents don’t want their children being taught about homosexuality, period,” Paulk said. “We believe that homosexuality is something that should be talked about in the home. But in the worst-case scenario, if it’s going to be presented in public schools, we want equal time.”

Bruce Hunter, director of public affairs for the American Association of School Administrators, which represents public school superintendents and is a member of the coalition, said his organization agreed with the message of the booklet. Still, he said, the publication is likely to be used by school administrators “based on community values.”

“There are many communities in this country that are just too conservative for that, and I trust superintendents to know their communities,” Hunter said. “On the other hand, when push comes to shove, occasionally you have to stand up, and we would hope they would stand up for tolerance.” n

Links:

American Association of School Administrators, 1801 North Moore Street, Arlington, VA 22209; phone (703) 528-0700, fax (703)841-1543, web http://www.aasa.org.

American Psychological Association, 750 First Street NE, Washington, DC 20002-4242; phone (202) 336-5500, web http://www.apa.org.

Focus on the Family, Colorado Springs, CO 80995; phone (800) 232-6459, web http://www.family.org.

Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, 121 West 27th Street, Suite 804, New York, NY 10001; phone (212) 727-0135, fax (212) 727-0254, eMail glsen@glsen.org, web http://www.glsen.org.

Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, 120 Wall Street, Suite 1500, New York, NY 10005-3904; phone (212) 809-8585, fax (212) 809-0055, web http://www.lambdalegal.org.

Massachusetts Department of Education, 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148-5023; phone (781) 338-3000, web http://www.doe.mass.edu.