School’s Out (book)

The commission sent five major recommendations to Governor Weld, the Department of Education, and the Executive Office of Education. They asked every one of the state’s three hundred high schools to establish policies protecting gay and lesbian students from harassment, violence, and discrimination; to train teachers, counselors, and school staff to respond to the needs of gay and lesbian students, including crisis intervention and suicide prevention; to establish a support group where gay and straight students can discuss important issues; to develop a library collection for students to learn more about lesbian and gay issues; and to develop curriculum that incorporates gay and lesbian themes and subject matter into all disciplines, in an age-appropriate manner.

In a historic and unanimous vote in May 1993, the Massachusetts Board of Education adopted the first four points as recommended state education policy; the fifth awaited development of discipline-specific guidelines. Approval brought no immediate practical effect – the state board can encourage, but not require, local school communities to enact policy – but its symbolic weight was enormous. Gay and lesbian youth issues had finally acquired government’s imprimaturl they leaped out of the closet, into every classroom in the commonwealth.

And that was only the beginning. Unlike many official commission reports, this one did not slide into obscurity or die a quiet death. Instead, actions began speaking even louder than the report’s powerful words. In July, Governor Weld stood in front of a group of educators and gay students in a Boston church to announce the first-ever state-wide effort  to train teachers about lesbian and gay issues. “The concept of schools as safe havens must apply to all students, including gay and lesbian students,” he said. “This is not about a different way of life; it is about life itself. We can take the first step toward ending gay youth suicide by creating an atmosphere of dignity and respect for gay youth in our schools.”

Even before the governor’s announcement, 110 school districts had expressed interest in the Department of Education project. Fortunately, they did not have to wait long to begin; in a launch rare for any government program, this one took off like a rocket.

One driving force behind what came to be called the Safe School’s Program for Gay and Lesbian Students, and one of the most enthusiastic bureaucrats to be found in any state department of education anywhere, is program director Jeff Perrotti. Originally hired as a consultant to work on AIDS training and education, he seized the chance to develop and nurture the $450,000 project, which is funded through the state legislature as part of its comprehensive school health curriculum. Within weeks Mr. Perrotti led a staff of twenty-five men and women (three of them full-time) whose sole mandate is to make Massachusetts schools more comfortable for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and questioning youths.

“We’re framing this in the context of school safety,” he explained. “It’s been presented by the Department of Education as a violence prevention program, to make the school climate safer for all students. We’re targeting one group that’s traditionally been at risk, but also poorly addressed.” The program is run by the same department unit that handles health education; the philosophy behind that, he said, is “you can’t address one part of a student’s life without addressing many others. Violence prevention is one part of school life, and gay and lesbian students are part of that part.”

Because Bay State taxpayers cherish local control of their schools, Mr. Perrotti’s group has embraced the belief that each district knows best what works for it, and what does not. “We don’t have the answers for each community – just suggestions,” he said. “Whatever schools want us to do, we’ll do it.” What districts want ranges from presentations on sexual harassment (with gay and lesbian issues simply one component), to evening community forums on gay and lesbian concerns, to in-service training, and much more.

The department’s first step was to contact every high school principal, asking each to select a liaison to the Governor’s Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth, which had not disbanded following its report. Many administrators designated counselors or interested teacher; some named themselves or the vice principals. In the summer of 1993 Mr. Perrotti’s group requested each liaison to develop a team of people to attend a regional workshop; ideal teams were comprised of parents, teachers, guidance counselors, administrators, and students. Nearly half of the schools that had selected liaisons formed such teams.

The regional Saturday workshops began in the fall of 1993; fifteen were scheduled for that first school year. Each brought ten or so school teams together, to introduce them to each other and the Department of Education’s resources. Mr. Perrotti termed the workshops very successful. “We had good attendance and great interaction. They came away with incredible energy and ideas.” Though the focus was on high schools, several middle and elementary schools were also represented. Each team received a $100 stipend.

At the workshops, participants brainstormed about their schools. By the end of the day they had developed work plans, and received applications for grants ranging from $500 to $2,000 (the total departmental budget available was $100,000), plus technical assistance for applying. Grants could be used to develop programs or groups, such as gay-straight alliances; training materials for teachers; field trips to attend plays, gay pride marches, or similar events; film series; Outward Bound-type experiences to build group unity; speakers; conferences – “anything at all that relates to developing programs,” Mr. Perrotti said. However, the department discouraged spending grants on books or curricular materials. They did not want  a disaster like the New York Rainbow Curriculum battle over the inclusion of gay-themed material in elementary schools. Leaders were determined to keep the focus on violence prevention.