Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Virginia Creeper: It Seemed like a Good Idea at the Time ...

Here's a question for members of the Virginia General Assembly:

If you had a bill before you that, if passed, would increase the number of high school dropouts, encourage students who remain to cut classes, and lower high-school grade point averages throughout the Commonwealth, would you vote for it?

There's such a bill before the General Assembly this year -- HB 1727 -- and it has a very good chance of sailing through this year's session without so much as a debate.

On the face of it, HB 1727 looks innocuous enough: It requires students who wish to attend a meeting of a "non-curriculum-related" organization to obtain a signed permission slip as evidence of their parents' "informed consent." One could hardly expect most parents to object to their daughters' joining the cheerleading squad, or their sons from joining a lacrosse team. And of course, students usually circumvent permission-slip requirements altogether by forging their parents' signatures and going about their business. So aside from the massive paperwork, bureaucratic hassle, and expense as school districts attempt to comply with the new regulation, it's doubtful that most student organizations would be affected.

But one type of student group -- Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) -- would be affected. The chief patron of HB 1727, GOP Delegate Matt Lohr, has so far remained decorously silent over whether the bill is intended specifically to attack Gay-Straight Alliances. In other states where this legislation has been proposed (particularly Georgia), supporters have been far more open in their aims to shut down Gay-Straight Alliances, and as one of the more notoriously anti-Gay members of the General Assembly, Lohr has most likely considered the possibility himself.

GSAs are an easy target for crusading right-wing legislators, since many parents suspect they're part of a vast conspiracy to promote sexual degeneracy in American public schools. A parental permission requirement could effectively block students from forming a Gay-Straight Alliance in most rural school districts, and would almost certainly ensure that when GSAs do manage to meet, a majority of students who want (or need) to attend will not be allowed. (A parental-permission requirement could compromise the privacy and confidentiality of GSA meetings, since everyone involved would have a permission slip on file -- and probably in a not-very-secure location.)

It's a shame that GSAs have become such easy targets for social conservatives, since all the available evidence suggests they're very good for high schools. According to a 2005 study by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), Gay and Lesbian students performed better in their schoolwork, were less likely to cut classes or drop out, and were more likely to attend college if they attended a high school with a Gay-Straight Alliance. It's not hard to see why. A Gay-Straight Alliance can function as a "safe space" for high-school students who may be questioning their sexuality, or who simply want to give their friends a little moral support. More to the point, a GSA reminds faculty and administration that Gay and Lesbian students -- as well as students suspected of being Gay or Lesbian -- are entitled to protection from sexual and physical harassment.

By most accounts, Gay and Lesbian high school students would seem to constitute an "at-risk" population on the order of Hispanic and African-American males. In the early 1990s, University of Minnesota pediatrics professor Gary Remafedi claimed that up to twenty-eight percent of Gay and Lesbian students dropped out of high school. His estimate may be high, though I suspect it wasn't far off the mark. Of course, under "No Child Left Behind" educational reforms, which require all students in a school system to reach basic proficiency levels in reading and math, the social and academic problems faced by even a small group of Gay and Lesbian students could keep an entire school from meeting federally mandated goals.

For schools that deliberately fail to protect their students, the consequences can be even more severe: Over the past decade, Gay and Lesbian students have won six- and seven-figure judgments against their respective alma maters. Since GSAs work to make the school environment more hospitable (and therefore, more compliant with federal Title IX regulations), they can save school districts quite a lot of money in the long run. But GSAs can't improve the lives of Gay and Lesbian students -- or help a school district wiggle out of a potential financial mess -- if new state regulations stifle them in the cradle.

With the benefits of Gay-Straight Alliances well known, the costs of their absence painfully obvious, and their operating expenses practically nil (as is true for nearly any non-athletic afterschool student group), it's clear that GSAs are a cheap solution to a pressing educational and legal problem. Our legislators would be wise to embrace these groups with open arms, and veto HB 1727.

But this is Virginia, so I doubt they will.

Update (5:45 p.m., 1/17/06): And yet they did. According to the Virginia General Assembly website, HB 1727 was killed in committee this morning.

Update (11:59 p.m. 1/18/06): There's another bill, absolutely identical to HB 1727, which the Education committee will probably consider next week -- HB 3047. So if you substitute "3047" for "1727," this post is still current. The game's not over yet.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Vintage Dog: "Mohandas and Me"

In honor of Martin Luther King Day, I'm serving up my annual link to "Mohandas and Me," a vintage My Stupid Dog essay in which I revisit the shame and folly of my left-liberal past. Because of a quirk in the new "Blogger" format, you'll have to scroll down the page until the title appears (it's near the bottom).

At the time I posted "Mohandas and Me," I didn't know about the racist articles Gandhi wrote while a lawyer in South Africa. It was a major gap in my knowledge of the man often referred to as Mahatma, or "Great Soul." To call Gandhi's turn-of-the-century writings "hate speech" would be an understatement: His invective against the local population was so vicious, so horrific, it would even have made even our own George Wallace blush. Yet the myth of a "great-souled" Gandhi remains largely impervious to historical fact. In 2003 the South African government dedicated a larger-than-life statue to the man who declared that the "sole ambition" of a typical Black South African "is to collect a certain number of cattle to buy a wife with, and then pass his life in indolence and nakedness."

Given Gandhi's track record, perhaps it's a good thing he and Dr. King never met.

As for me, I plan to resume posting within the week.

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