The Chicago school system now has an openly gay head. Earlier this year, Mayor Richard M. Daley appointed former Chicago Transit Authority head (and before that mayoral Chief of Staff) Ron Huberman to head the school system with an obvious mandate to improve what are often called "the failing Chicago schools."
The situation may be unique. I know of no other school system with an openly gay head, certainly not one of any major city. Huberman's homosexuality was well known within the gay community, and certainly to Mayor Daley, but how widely it was known among the general public is doubtful. In any case, shortly after he was appointed, Huberman "came out" publicly during an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, a disclosure that had all the earmarks of a preemptive strike. Oddly there has been little noticeable objection, not even from the generally homophobic black religious establishment.
No doubt Huberman will be focusing on improving standard measures of school effectiveness such as improving test scores, reducing dropout rates, and reducing teacher turnover. But from our point of view one major problem which may not get addressed unless we push it as a priority is bullying-specifically anti-gay bullying. This is hardly irrelevant to the other concerns: Bullying of students who are or are perceived as gay or "different" can make young people afraid to go to school, resulting in poor attendance, higher dropout rates, and even occasional suicide-as was the case recently with a 15-year-old boy in Western Springs.
Even for those young people who manage to stick it out, bullying creates a poor learning environment and can cause considerable residual emotional damage. A robust-looking man, Huberman probably did not face bullying in school, but he surely knows that many young gays do, and I hope that reducing bullying would be a priority for him. Numerous studies by GLSEN-the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network-have documented its pervasiveness.
The issue can be confronted on two major fronts. In briefest outline here they are.
The schools need to get serious about all bullying, making it an expellable offense-a mandatory ten-day suspension with mandatory counseling for a first offense, and expulsion after a second offense. That may not do much for bullies, some of whom probably do not want to be in school anyway, but it will do much to improve the lives and learning of vulnerable youths.
Huberman also needs to appoint a Special Assistant for Anti-Bullying Initiatives or "Anti-Bullying Czar" to survey programs in other school systems that have helped reduce bullying and institute them in the Chicago schools systemwide.
But reducing anti-gay pressures in the schools is not enough. Positive support mechanisms must be set up. First, the city must encourage the creation of Gay/Straight Alliances at all middle and high schools. It should seek out gay and gay-friendly teachers to act as advisors and provide them (and all administrators) with copies of the "Equal Access" law which mandates the acceptance of a wide variety of student clubs, including, courts have decided, gay student groups.
Second, Chicago must create not just one school but an archipelago of explicitly gay-inclusive and gay-supportive schools across the city for students to escape to if they do not feel safe at their current school.
Third, the city must promote regular schoolwide assemblies on the issue of tolerance and acceptance of all ethnicities and orientations, featuring appropriate speakers, including known athletes where possible to serve as exemplars.
Fourth, the city should facilitate an annual day-long conference of members of existing Gay/Straight Alliances and potential G/SA members at other schools to get to know one another, provide mutual encouragement, and network on ways to address common concerns.
If the schools cannot do at least these things, they cannot be said to be serious about bullying and anti-gay harassment. We as a community will be watching.