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Many Wisconsin voucher schools are hostile to their LGBTQ students—and don’t seem to care

Many Wisconsin voucher schools are hostile to their LGBTQ students—and don’t seem to care

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By Yesica Balderrama

July 10, 2024

Religious schools that get taxpayer funds officially can’t discriminate when it comes to admissions, but that doesn’t mean they can’t make life miserable for young people finding their way.

Private, often religious, high schools that accept students through Wisconsin’s voucher programs have 12,000 reasons to appear welcoming to all who apply, even LGBTQ students. The $12,000 annual voucher—taxpayer dollars—took a big jump from around $9,000 because of a bipartisan deal that also increased funding for public schools—though nowhere near that percentage rate. 

But once schools have cashed the check, there is little stopping them from letting some students know they are not welcome.

Nat Werth graduated at the top of his class from Sheboygan Lutheran High School, a private voucher school, five years ago. He attracted media attention in 2019 after his school canceled his valedictorian speech after learning he had planned to come out publicly as gay and critique homophobia in the Bible. He said his teachers would sometimes make homophobic remarks in school. He recalled an incident where he felt so anxious about anti-LGBTQ+ comments made in class he had to step outside to calm down—and received detention for it. 

“I got detention for not having the emotional capacity to stay in the classroom. I was like, there’s no support for me in this place. After getting attention for removing myself from a potentially emotionally triggering situation,” said Werth.

The investigative news site Wisconsin Watch analyzed one-third of 373 voucher school public materials. The data revealed four out of 10 schools had statements that were unwelcoming of LGBTQ+ students. A voucher school associated with the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS) wrote on its What We Believe page about the importance of abiding by traditional male and female gender roles. The homosexuality section says, “Scripture declares that homosexuality is a sin, which is contrary to God’s intention in creating man and woman.” 

The Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network or GLSEN, an organization that advocates for queer student inclusivity, distributes a national survey every few years to secondary school pupils. The National School Climate Surveys assess how safe and included students felt at school. The latest available results for Wisconsin are from 2021 and the state was generally marked as not safe for queer students. The majority reported hearing anti-LGBTQ+ remarks from peers and about half reported verbal harassment for their sexual or gender identity at school. 

The Wisconsin Public School System has a supportive LGBTQ+ policy for families and students, but voucher schools are not subject to the same anti-discrimination laws. Private schools in Wisconsin are not legally required to protect the rights of queer students. Studies have shown queer youth are at risk of higher rates of depression and anxiety due to lack of support from adults and peers, and yet taxpayers have paid millions of dollars over the years to schools that harm the mental health of young queer people. 

Support for Wisconsin’s LGBTQ+ students is crucial at private and public schools. Studies have shown that LGBTQ+ youth are more likely to experience bullying and discrimination from family and peers than their heterosexual counterparts, which contribute to poor mental health outcomes. Queer youth are at a higher risk of depression, substance abuse, social ostracization, and anxiety. They also have higher rates of school absenteeism; queer youth may avoid going to school for fear of experiencing hostile behavior. Providing an accepting and welcoming environment at schools for queer youth may help prevent the onset of poor mental health. 

“I mean, students are struggling right. When students don’t have support at home, oftentimes they look to schools to be a place where they’re affirmed. And with the flurry of bad bills introduced in our state legislature these past couple of years…Just hearing their lives and their validity, debated by adults, has a negative impact on them.” said Brian Juchems, Senior Director of Education and Policy at the Gay Straight Alliance for Safe Schools, or GSAFE.

Voucher schools cannot discriminate against LGBTQ+ students in the application process. But once in school, pupils can be pushed out. 

Juchems said he often doesn’t hear from queer voucher school students or parents. Youth who do reach out to complain about prejudice are told to file paperwork with the Department of Public Instruction in Wisconsin, and their efforts are often futile. Private schools aren’t held accountable for discrimination. Federal Title IX exempts religious institutions from complying with the anti-discrimination laws, because it runs counter to their religious beliefs. 

“So yeah, lawmakers are not tackling the real issue about correcting voucher schools using tax money to discriminate against queer kids. The fact is that vouchers are collecting money from the public, that’s also being collected from LGBTQ people, and funneled back to schools that discriminate on the basis of gender identity, sexuality, and disability,” said Jones.

Juchems has worked with Wisconsin LGBTQ+ youth for almost 20 years. He has participated in the organization’s efforts to pass anti-discrimination legislation, at the state and local level, for trans and nonbinary students. The nonprofit works with queer youth to teach them leadership skills, build community, and to provide them with access to health and education resources. Juchems recommends schools include queer content in curriculums to help students feel included at school.

Instead, Republicans in the Wisconsin Legislature continue pursuing an anti-LGBTQ agenda, knowing their bills face a certain veto from Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.

Earlier this year, Evers vetoed a bill that would have banned Wisconsin’s trans and gender nonconforming students from participating in sports teams that match their gender identity. If passed, LGBTQ+ kids would have been forced to play on sports teams that align with their gender assigned at birth. 

The American Civil Liberties Union has tracked 522 anti-LGBTQ+ bills nationally this year and 14 of the bills belong to Wisconsin, none of which became law. State Democrats proposed bills in October of last year that would have extended LGBTQ+ anti-discrimination laws to include voucher schools. But the bills failed to pass this spring. Wisconsin’s own ACLU has been at the forefront of advocating for queer students. According to Jon McCray Jones, the policy director at the ACLU of Wisconsin, the organization successfully won a case last year that would have forcefully outed transgender and gender nonconfirming students to their parents. 

“We’ve seen many attempts by school boards to pass these policies. There’s a reason why so many kids don’t feel safe coming out to their parents. The consequences can be deadly. Trans teens and gender nonconforming teens have some of the highest homeless rates out of any demographic. And a lot of that is because their parents put them out. That places them in terrible situations to be physically harmed or to simply be killed,” said Jones.  

While Werth attended a private school that was unsupportive of queer students, Nevaeh Jackson-Winters, a public high school graduate, shared his experience about having understanding teachers and staff. Organizations such as the ACLU of Wisconsin and GSAFE have launched various efforts to aid LGBTQ+ students in the state. 

Jackson-Winters met Juchems at GSAFE. They are a Black 18 year old graduate from Robert M. La Follette High School in Madison, Wisconsin, who identifies as queer, nonbinary, and uses they/them pronouns. At school, they appreciated that their teachers and school staff used the pronouns they requested, and they corrected classmates when they did not use the preferred pronouns. 

“Having to try to correct people can be a bit tiring. And it can make me a bit uncomfortable, because I just don’t know how the person is going to react. So I was scared. Having someone be able to do that, it’s nice,” said Jackson-Winters. 

Werth did not seek emotional support while in high school. Instead he concentrated on graduating and leaving Wisconsin. As a college student in Boston, he finally found community. He graduated last year and is currently focused on his career. He said he has done his best to move on from his high school experience. Lutheran High School, as of last year, still had transphobic policies in the student handbook, which prohibits students from using preferred pronouns, and forces them to use bathrooms that align with their gender assigned at birth. 

According to a Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction report, the school received $966,186 from taxpayers for its 78 voucher program students.

The form for the 2024 GLSEN School Climate Survey can be found here.

Author

  • Yesica Balderrama

    Yesica Balderrama is a bilingual journalist based in New York City. Her written work has been published in The Associated Press, Los Angeles Times en Español, NPR, WNYC, Yes! Magazine and others.

CATEGORIES: EDUCATION
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