LGBTQ+

Schools for LGBTQ+ students aim to create 'safe space'

A new type of school is emerging and attracting lots of attention recently: Schools specifically designed for students who identify as LGBTQ+.

Schools for LGBTQ+ students aim to create 'safe space'
Richard Vogel / AP
SMS

Inside this century-old building, a new school is taking shape.

"Proud Academy will be Connecticut, and actually New England's first school for LGBTQ youth and their allies," said Patty Nicolari, founder of Proud Academy.

Nicolari spent more than three decades in education as both a teacher and a principal.

"Students would shout things, derogatory comments, and leave notes on my desk asking if I was gay, and scratching derogatory comments in my car," Nicolari said. "And I thought, 'This is not okay.' I'm the adult and it's not feeling safe here. So, I can't imagine how my students are feeling."

Nicolari said when Ellen DeGeneres came out in the 1990s, she felt inspired to do the same. It all eventually led Nicolari to start Proud Academy, with a planned fall opening for two dozen students in grades 7 and 8, inside a Boys & Girls Club building in Ansonia, Connecticut.

"This facility is 32,000 square feet. So, we have all of this classroom space down here. We have a music room upstairs that is just unbelievable," Nicolari said. "We have a 10,000 square foot gymnasium, plus we get to use all of the equipment that's here. It's already furnished with tables and chairs. It's all set to go."

When it opens, Proud Academy will join a handful of other schools around the country geared towards LGBTQ+ students, including Harvey Milk High School, which first opened in New York City in the 1980s, along with more recent schools in Ohio, Wisconsin and Alabama.

It comes as a new national survey finds teenagers who identify as LGBTQ+ are facing challenges to their mental health, in part, because of a growing number of anti-LGBTQ+ policies around the country.

That's according to the suicide prevention nonprofit The Trevor Project, which conducted the 2023 U.S. National Survey on the Mental Health of LGBTQ+ Young People. They surveyed more than 28,000 LGBTQ+ young people between the ages of 13 and 24. 

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The survey found that 41% of them said they considered attempting suicide in the past year. Another 67% reported experiencing anxiety, while more than half, 54%, reported depression.

It's an environment that has parents from other states already reaching out about Proud Academy — willing to move to Connecticut, so their child can attend.

"It's amazing — from Kansas, from Massachusetts, Texas and Florida, as well," Nicolari said.

Doug Perry currently teaches music at a nearby college and is looking to become the school's music teacher.

"I had to endure a lot of harassment when I was a kid, especially in my younger years," Perry said. "When I heard about this school, it just filled me with a lot of hope that maybe I could have the opportunity to help another young person not have to go through what I experienced as a kid — and I don't think my story is that unusual."

It's not, says 8th grader Moss Linden, who shared what it's like at their current school.

"Honestly, not that great," Moss said. "Like I've been getting bullied and stuff."

It is a distressing thing to hear for Moss' parents, Jennifer Linden and Dolores Hopkins.

"You know, you go to mama bear mode, right? Like your first reaction is to just, 'I'm going to go into that school,' Jennifer Linden said. "Moss is resilient and intelligent and fun and sometimes I feel like it's hurting their spirit a little, to not be represented so well in school."

Dolores Hopkins said what happens in school can also impact learning itself.

"Your brain shuts down in trauma, so you can't learn," Hopkins said. "So, if you're getting bullied or know you're uncomfortable at school, you're not learning to your full capability."

That is why they believe Proud Academy would be a good fit, and so does Moss.

"I do feel like I would make more friends there as well, because I'm in a space with people who can relate to me — I feel like that would be cool," Moss said.

However, challenges remain for them, as Proud Academy is a private school and will require tuition of nearly $20,000.

Nicolari hopes that can change after the school's first year of operation.

"Hopefully, year two, we will have enough funds to be able to offer scholarships and offset the tuition," Nicolari said.

That's something these parents say they would welcome.

"I just think it's brilliant that we've come to the point where a Proud Academy can even be in the conversation," Hopkins said.

It is a conversation that is now underway.