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Bridges4Kids LogoThey're 'Out' at School, and Tension is in
by Susan Snyder, Philadelphia Inquirer, February 8, 2004
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Philadelphia high schools are struggling with a new problem in student behavior: rising tensions between heterosexual and openly lesbian girls.

Nationwide, lesbians increasingly are declaring their sexual orientation and publicly displaying their affection for each other at younger ages, and Philadelphia appears in step with that trend.

The phenomenon has led to embarrassing moments in some cases and physical clashes in others. Accusations of intimidation have surfaced on both sides: from lesbians who say they are being harassed and from heterosexual girls who say they have been grabbed and bothered.

At Simon Gratz High last month, a fight broke out in the cafeteria between a group of lesbians calling itself Lipstick and other girls, according to police. In December, a student was beaten outside Kensington High after she "interfered" with a relationship between two girls who were openly lesbian, police said. At Northeast High last spring, staff and students were taken aback when some girls were seen unabashedly groping each other in the halls.

"It's new territory when it comes to counseling and discipline," said Paul Vallas, chief executive officer of the Philadelphia School District. "Administrators and faculty are reluctant to deal with these issues, because they don't know how."

Vallas says it is difficult to pinpoint the root of the tensions. He has received complaints from three schools this year that lesbians were behaving aggressively toward others. Meanwhile, "DTO" - an acronym for Dykes Taking Over - has been scrawled on walls at several schools.

When complaints arise, Vallas said, "the challenge that you face is distinguishing between consensual activity, or cases where the girls are responding to harassment from other girls, or when the girls are threatening other girls. They're all unacceptable. Consensual sexual activity isn't going to be tolerated in the schools either - same-sex or opposite-sex."

Eric Braxton, executive director of the Philadelphia Student Union, a student activist group, said he first heard about conflicts between gay and straight girls in city schools four or five years ago.

"It always seemed like something folks were very uncomfortable talking about. In the last few months, it's risen to levels that it's become an issue that people are talking about," he said.

The district has heard enough concerns about the issue that it plans in April to provide training for teachers, administrators, aides, school police and other staff on gay and lesbian issues. That instruction is being developed by the Mazzoni Center, a Philadelphia gay and lesbian health agency, and by the Mayor's Advisory Board on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Issues. The district also plans to incorporate new lessons for students on respect and tolerance in its high schools beginning this September and in elementary schools in September 2005.

Jeanne Stanley, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania who studies gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender issues, said teens were responding to "a degree of outness in general and more acceptance."

And although some teens are sure of their sexual identities, others experience "fluidity" during this time of sexual questioning, Stanley said.

School districts across the country have encountered some of the same situations as Philadelphia, according to the National School Safety Center, based in California. (Administrators at several area high schools in the suburbs, however, said they were not seeing more out lesbians, or experiencing conflicts.)

Educators say they are not finding the same problem with boys, who tend not to be as open about their sexuality in school, possibly because they don't feel as safe doing so.

Confrontations between gay and heterosexual girls surfaced publicly four years ago at University City High School. Then-principal Florence Johnson, who discussed the matter in a WYBE-TV (Channel 35) documentary that aired in 2002, said that students had complained that lesbians were "brushing up against us, watching us in the bathrooms, gathering in corners, and talking about us."

Students also battled each other near the school, and parents' complaints mounted.

Johnson held an all-girls assembly to discuss concerns. The assembly riled gay-rights advocates, who said Johnson had unfairly singled out lesbians and portrayed them as predators. They said she should have met privately with the students involved. Johnson, who has since moved to a central-office job, said she dealt with the issue at an assembly because the whole school knew about it.

Dexter Green, the district's chief safety executive, said he believed conflicts involving lesbian students had increased, though he did not have statistics; information about sexual orientation usually does not appear on reports.

In the Gratz case, such information did. Michael Lodise, president of the school police officers union, said the Gratz officer indicated that the Lipstick group seemed to be trying to "recruit" others.

Several students involved in the incident, however, said they were not aware of Lipstick and that the fight had nothing to do with sexual identity. But they said that the school had experienced tension between straight and gay students.

Gratz principal Delores Williams did not return a call seeking comment.

In the last two years, 10 city high schools that experienced conflicts involving lesbian students sought help from Danny Horn, education director of the Mazzoni Center.

Horn said educators at those schools complained that some girls in lesbian-identified groups were grabbing and harassing other girls. He said he usually found some truth to the reports, but noted that lesbians also were banding together to bond and to ward off provocation by others.

A recent national survey by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network indicated that four of five gay, lesbian and bisexual students reported that they had been verbally or physically harassed in school.

In the case at Northeast High, recognized by gay advocates as being one of the best in dealing with these issues, some staff and students complained about girls who they thought were being overly affectionate in the halls.

"People were being embarrassed," said Cynthia Jenkins-Hassan, a nurse and director of the school's Gay-Straight Alliance, a club whose purpose is to foster discussion and better understanding of gay and lesbian issues.

Jenkins-Hassan and an administrator told the girls such activity had to stop. The girls countered that opposite-sex couples did the same.

"Some people felt like they were discriminating," said a 16-year-old student who described herself as gay and asked not to be identified.

Jenkins-Hassan and the administrator told the girls that such activities by heterosexual couples also would not be tolerated. The school has followed through with that promise, said both the 16-year-old and Jenkins-Hassan.

It's not clear where the declaration DTO started, but the acronym has been embraced by some lesbian-identified girls. One 16-year-old who attends a North Philadelphia high school displays those letters on her book bag. She said that the letters were merely a symbol, like the rainbow used by gays to proclaim their sexual identification, and that no formal DTO exists.

As the girl, whose mother would not let her daughter's name be used, put it: "It lets people know who we are, and we're proud of it."

She said being open about her sexuality had helped her improve her grades, and had stopped suicidal thoughts over her sexual identity.

At William Penn High, some staff and lesbian students describe an atmosphere of intolerance toward gay students.

Tiffany Powell, 18, a senior who is openly gay, said school police officers and teachers had made disparaging comments to her. She said one school police officer told her, "Girl, you know you want a man. You know you're too pretty for this."

She said she sometimes lashed back, and got suspended as a result.

William Penn principal Leonard A. Heard did not return calls seeking comment.

Vallas said he would investigate. He says he supports the creation of gay-straight alliances in every high school; about a dozen of the district's more than 50 high schools have such groups.

Carole Greenauer, vice president of PFLAG Philadelphia (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), said the Vallas administration had adopted a positive approach.

"He has made it clear to the principals that they are to be supportive of gay-straight alliances and to keep those kids safe," Greenauer said.

But Rita Addessa, executive director of the Pennsylvania Lesbian and Gay Task Force, said the district could better deal with such concerns if it had correctly implemented a 1994 policy adopted by the school board. That policy - passed to ensure that students receive multicultural, multiracial and gender education - requires curriculum and staff training.

"This board," Addessa said, "has never invested the money, time and talent to implement [the policy], and has only been engaged in token efforts over the last 10 years."


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