LGBTQ students need — and deserve — educational choice too

Albert Einstein Academy opened in August 2018 to serve mostly LGBTQ high school students in metro Cleveland. Nearly 40 students enrolled and another 15 signed up to enter as ninth-graders this fall. About 80 percent of the students at the charter school identify as LGBTQ.

Sixteen-year-old Channing Smith of Tennessee killed himself after classmates circulated sexually explicit messages he exchanged with another boy. Fifteen-year-old Nigel Shelby of Alabama killed himself after peers bullied him over his sexual identity and school officials reportedly told him “being gay is a choice.” When 9-year-old James Myles of Colorado came out at his school, fellow students reportedly told him to kill himself. Tragically, he did.

In Florida, Elijah Robinson was harassed to the edge too. But for an educational choice scholarship that gave him an option – a safe, accepting private school – Elijah, 18, said he would no longer be alive.

Channing, Nigel, James and Elijah were students in public schools. That’s not a slam on public schools. It’s just a reminder, which I wish wasn’t necessary, that far too many LGBTQ students are tormented in far too many schools of all types.

Elijah Robinson, 18, a student at Foundation Academy in Jacksonville, Fla., experienced severe bullying at his assigned public school. PHOTO: Lance Rothstein

It’s also a plea. LGBTQ students are two to three times more likely to experience bullying than non-LGBTQ students. I hope all of us who want to end that hostility will think twice about a narrative, recently buoyed by legislation filed in Florida, that casts programs that provide private school options as though they are inherently part of the problem. If the goal is ensuring the safety and affirmation of LGBTQ students – and not simply the tarring of educational choice – that doesn’t make sense.

Please consider what LGBTQ students say. According to the most recent survey by GLSEN, 72 percent of LGBTQ students in public district schools said they experienced bullying, harassment and assault due to their sexual orientation, compared to 68 percent of LGBTQ students in private, religious schools, and 60 percent in private, non-religious schools. For bullying, harassment and assault based on gender expression, the numbers in those three sectors were 61, 56 and 58 percent, respectively.

All those numbers are horrifically high. All lead to dark places. LGBTQ students are three times as likely as non-LGBTQ students to suffer from depression or anxiety. They’re twice as likely to experiment with drugs and alcohol. While 15 percent of non-LGBTQ high school students considered suicide over the past year, 40 percent of LGBTQ students did.

Educational options are not an antidote. But they can help.

In Florida, recent scrutiny over a relative handful of private schools that are not LGBTQ welcoming ignores a key point. Students are not assigned to those schools. Their parents can enroll them elsewhere. That’s often not the case for LGBTQ students suffering in assigned public schools. Elijah Robinson endured nearly two years of abuse in his assigned school before a scholarship gave him a way out. “If I had stayed,” he said, “I honestly think I would have lost my life.”

In Ohio, educators concerned about LGBTQ bullying in district schools opened a charter school for LGBTQ students. To be sure, some supporters had mixed feelings. As one parent told me, “We’re saying, ‘You’re so different, you need your own school’.” On the other hand, for many students at this school, having an option was literally a matter of life and death. “There’s a need,” said Henry, a transgender student who considered suicide in fifth grade, “for a school where people can feel like they belong.”

One day, I hope, all schools will be safe and affirming. In the meantime, it’s unconscionable to trap Elijah, Henry or any other student in any school that isn’t.