This past March, Florida became the first state to create a private school voucher program just for bullied students.
The Hope Scholarship Program gives students who report being bullied $6,700 towards tuition at a private school, or $750 for transportation to another public school.
Anti-bullying activists in Florida opposed the bill, pointing out that bullying occurs in private schools at about the same rate as it does in public schools, that bullies will just pick new targets if their victims leave, and that private schools aren’t closely regulated when it comes to bullying so students will find they have few tools to remedy a situation at a private school.
Now a new analysis by the Huffington Post found that many of the private schools that students can attend in the program would just join in the bullying of LGBTQ students.
Around 70 private schools have signed up for the program to take in bullied public school students. Of these schools, 10% have explicit “zero tolerance” policies when it comes to homosexuality.
For example, Trinity Christian Academy’s student handbook says students are required to refrain from “Any action involving pornography or homosexuality.” Harvest Academy calls homosexuality an “abomination” in its parent/student handbook.
An LGBTQ student is unlikely to find much help at these schools.
Moreover, 30% of the schools use curricula that teaches that homosexuality is wrong. For example, some of these schools use textbooks from Abeka. The company’s 8th grade U.S. history textbook calls gay rights a “moral evil.”
Lyana Rodriguez, 24, went to the Westwood Christian School – which is eligible to participate in the anti-bullying program – for high school. She said that she was bullied relentlessly at the school, which she attended after being bullied at another private, Christian school.
“I can’t imagine what would have happened if I had realized I was bi,” said Rodriguez, who is now out. “I could only imagine the type of torture it is.”
The school itself is quite clear on what LGBTQ students are supposed to do: report their feelings to a school administrator and submit to conversion therapy. If a student refuses counseling, “the student will be asked to withdraw from school,” the student handbook says.
Even more mainstream religious schools that don’t have explicit policies against gay and trans students send signals to bullies that it’s OK to target their LGBTQ classmates. Just this past year, a Catholic high school in Miami fired a teacher when she came out as lesbian.
In response to the investigation, a spokesperson for Governor Rick Scott (R) said, “Governor Scott does not tolerate discrimination of any kind.”
A 2017 study found that LGBTQ youth are two to three times more likely to be physically assaulted or threatened in school, compared to non-LGBTQ youth.
This is not the first policy in Florida that transfers public funds to private schools. A 2017 Brookings Institute analysis found that 83% of students attending a private school with a state voucher were going to a religious private school.
If the Hope Scholarship Program follows suit, bullied LGBTQ youth who aren’t out to their parents could be sent to a school where bullying will worsen, with the state paying part of the bill.
And bullied LGBTQ youth with supportive parents won’t have access to a solution unless they live near one of the few eligible secular schools. Even then, there’s no guarantee that students at the private school won’t continue to bully the student.