A new private school in Georgia that wants to provide a safe space for LGBT students, Pride School Atlanta, will open this fall. It will be the first school of its kind in the state and models itself after the Harvey Milk school in New York, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
The K-12 school — founded by Christian Zsilavetz, a trans teacher with 25 years of experience in the classroom — will serve both LGBT students and cis straight students who may feel out of place. It’s an especially important resource given its location, according to some LGBT advocates, because LGBT youth living in the South and the Midwest often feel like they won’t be able to find support in their hometowns.
LGBT students in schools across the nation face anxiety about going to school due to their sexual orientation or gender expression, according to the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network’s 2013 National School Climate Survey.
That survey shows 74 percent of LGBT students reported being verbally harassed because of sexual orientation, while 55 percent reported the same for their gender expression. Thirty percent of LGBT students reported that they missed school for one day in the past month because they felt unsafe or uncomfortable at school, and some LGBT students face physical harassment and assault.
LGBT teachers also say they feel pressured to keep their sexual orientation or gender secret in particularly conservative communities, which can sometimes prevent teachers from teaching lessons about how to treat LGBT students better or opposing unnecessarily heteronormative school activities. LGBT teachers and LGBT teacher allies have dealt with backlash from parents and administrators after reading books that acknowledge the existence of same-sex relationships or showing videos that advocate against bullying LGBT students.
Even small shows of support for LGBT students and LGBT student pride through T-shirts or rainbow stickers have caused controversy at schools in recent years. Within only two months of each other, two students were reprimanded for wearing a T-shirt that read, “Nobody knows I’m a lesbian,” with one administrator saying it was an “open invitation to sex,” and administrators asked students to remove T-shirts that read, “Gay O.K.” to discourage gay bullying because the shirts were considered disruptive. Fortunately, the tide is turning as the ACLU fights these cases.
In a statement about the new school in Atlanta, a GLSEN spokesperson pointed out that the ultimate goal is to improve the environment for LGBT kids in every school. However, until schools make major changes in their approach toward fostering a safer and more respectful environment for LGBT students, those kids may be interested in attending an institution like Pride School Atlanta that seems like a more welcoming place for them to learn.
“GLSEN’s priority is that all students have access to a safe and affirming learning environment regardless of what kind of school they are in,” the statement reads. “Obviously, we wish there weren’t a need for schools like Pride School and hope the day comes when they aren’t necessary. The work they do to support LGBT youth is admirable and important, and they can be a lifeline for students who might not graduate otherwise.”
Pride School Atlanta plans to operate out of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta church until it opens later this year, but permits are pending. The school charges a $13,000 a year tuition — although Zsilavetz says he’s working with various organizations to establish annual scholarship funds for students who may not be able to afford that as well as applying for grants to support the funds. Families who do service work for the school may also have their child’s tuition reduced.
Anyone interested in supporting the school may send tax deductible donations to its fiscal sponsor, the Institute for Transgender Economic Advancement.
Zsilavetz has received a lot of emails from parents of LGBT students saying they’re happy to see an alternative school is available for them after their children have dealt with several incidents of bullying at their schools.
In an interview with The Daily Beast last year, he acknowledged that LGBT students shouldn’t have to leave their current school setting to be treated fairly, but said it’s important to provide these resources now.
“Why do we have to wait for them to fix the whole system?” he said. “Why should my kids have to wait for the whole system to change?”
This article initially identified the school’s organization as working inside the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta, based on reporting from the Atlanta Journal Constitution. Permits to work inside the church are pending.