Bully High

How many adults would want to relive their high school years, a time too commonly pervaded with social posturing and rejection, taunts and even occasional assaults against teens who don’t fit in? That’s especially true for gay and lesbian teenagers, who are more likely to be bullied at school and play hooky out of pure dread of the place.

Clearly, toughing it out doesn’t work for many of these kids, which is why Chicago school leaders will consider Wednesday whether to open a “gay friendly” high school of about 600 students, who would enroll through a lottery. It’s expected that most of the applicants would be gay teens seeking a refuge from regular schools, though law prohibits asking about a student’s sexual identification.

Chicago’s concern for its gay students is commendable, but far from solving the problem, the creation of a cloistered, segregated environment represents an easy escape -- not so much for the transferring students as for school leaders. Instead of asking whether gay teens need a respite from the meanness of high school, the school board should be asking why principals haven’t been creating campuses with zero tolerance for ugly behavior.

Is that mere touchy-feely squishiness? If so, it works anyway. Principals and teaching staffs across the country have turned mean schools into places with a culture of tolerance, or at least decent behavior. These are schools in which kids speak up when they see someone being tormented; principals don’t brush off cruelty with “Oh, well, kids will be kids.” They set high standards for behavior, just as they do for academic achievement; they actively model good behavior and reward it; and they back up their standards with detention or suspension for violators.


Often this kind of transformation takes place after a crisis. In the saddest cases, it’s a suicide -- or even a murder. This year, Lawrence King, an openly gay middle-schooler in Oxnard, was shot and killed, allegedly by a classmate.

If Chicago opens a special school for gay students, the message to teachers and administrators will be: Don’t bother to demand decent behavior from students. Let them pick on whoever sticks out -- kids with learning or physical disabilities, kids from different ethnic or religious backgrounds, kids who look funny or act uncool. And the message to bullies will be: Behave badly toward people you don’t like, and we’ll conveniently sweep them out of your way.