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Gays to Hamilton: Can you hear me now?



Six months ago, an openly gay Hamilton High student going by the name of Sam was removed from school by his mother because she feared her son was in physical danger (see “Ins and outs,” Jan. 2, 2003, by Jed Gottlieb). Eventually, Sam returned to classes with reassurances from Principal Kevin Conwell that harassment of any kind would not be tolerated, and that further incidents would not be swept “under the rug.”

Now Sam’s mother says she’s back at square one—the harassment continues and the staff sensitivity training she was hoping for has yet to be scheduled. Frustrated, she decided to take a more proactive role, and so, gathering a group of 17 students, she walked into school offices on the morning of Tuesday, March 4 and asked the Hamilton High administration how it was attacking the problem.

“They are really naive about it. They think that what happened to [my son] is an isolated incident,” she says. “If it was just harassment from the students that’d be one thing, but when you’re getting it in the classroom, when it’s allowed in the classroom and teachers are making comments, it’s not professional at all.”

She alleges that teachers aren’t squelching the problem, rather they’re part of it. She also says the harassment is escalating. Last week, a student photocopied flyers with the statement “Straight is great, gay won’t stay” and distributed them around the building.

Conwell sympathizes with Sam’s mother, but says that the administration is doing all that it can to handle the situation.

“Disciplinary action was taken toward the student that was involved with that [the flyers], but that’s really all I can say,” he says. “I’ll tell you it was dealt with seriously.”

As for scheduling additional staff training, Conwell says that’s in the works.

“We’ve had [sensitivity training] ongoing for the past several years,” he says. “But because it’s being brought up again, I definitely welcome the chance for us to talk to our staff again about the need to be sensitive to these issues.”

Conwell has spoken with other Montana schools that have recently held trainings geared specifically toward gay and lesbian issues, and is currently deciding what type of training will be best and when it will take place. But finding time isn’t simple. Hamilton High has a half-day set aside each month during which the staff deals with curriculum, safety and other issues. Most likely, the training will happen in April, he says. Sam’s mother isn’t optimistic that it will happen at all.

“I heard that same old song and dance last time I was in there with my son,” she says. “Well, we’ve gone from one student to seventeen students, and I still heard the same thing yesterday: ‘I’m going to be checking into it.’”

Again, Conwell urges patience as he and his staff search for long-term solutions to a problem that every high school in America faces.

“I’m not saying we’re perfect,” he says. “We certainly have issues of harassment and teasing and we’re trying really, really hard to address those.”

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