Gays and Christians Observe Differences in School

A national day of silence is planned to publicize the discrimination that gay and lesbian students face in public schools. Some Christian students are responding with demonstrations of their own dubbed, "Day of Truth."

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Some teachers might see fewer hands going up today for those wanting to speak in class. It's a national day of silence by gay and lesbian students to draw attention to the bullying they often face in school. Some Christian students will respond tomorrow with their own day of truth.

As NPR's Elaine Korry reports, it's the latest battle in the culture wars over how public schools should address issues surrounding homosexuality.

ELAINE KORRY reporting:

During lunchtime at Mills High School, south of San Francisco, lesbian and gay students have been selling T-shirts and recruiting classmates to participate in their special day.

Unidentified Man: Would you like to sign up for a day of silence?

Unidentified Woman: Yeah.

Unidentified Man: All right, take this pen, write your name and your fourth period class.

KORRY: Students who register will receive a sticker to wear, explaining why they choose not to speak on this day.

For organizer Sierra Trinidad(ph), a senior, the observance symbolizes the many times she's been forced to keep quiet about her sexual orientation. This day, she says, is about standing up for herself.

Ms. SIERRA TRINIDAD (Organizer, Day of Silence): When it comes down to it, it's about being who you are. There's nothing more to explain. I'm quiet because this is what I believe in. And that's what it's about.

KORRY: Classmate Loren Pulliach(ph), a junior, says sometimes silence is more powerful than words in responding to prejudice.

Ms. LOREN PULLIACH (High School Junior): You could yell and shout, but that, in the end, really accomplishes nothing. But people really notice you if, you know, you're just silent. It has an effect on people.

KORRY: some kids will be silent in the halls and at lunch, while others will be quiet for the entire day. National organizers say students on about 4,000 high school and college campuses will take part.

Kevin Jennings, with the Gay Education network GLSEN, has also released a new survey, showing two-thirds of these students say they're routinely harassed while at school.

Mr. KEVIN JENNINGS (Executive Director, GLSEN): Schools simply aren't safe places for a lot of these young people. And when you don't feel safe, you can't learn.

KORRY: Today's events will not go unnoticed by conservative Christians, who say the activities are promoting a gay agenda in the schools.

MarIna Rojas, a college student in Visalia, California, has been organizing Christian high school girls in the area. On Thursday, they'll participate in what they're calling a day of truth.

Ms. MARINA ROJAS (Organizer, Day of Truth): A day to show, you know, from our viewpoint, a Christian viewpoint, just to say, you know what, we're showing Christ's love. You know, we're not condemning you as a person. It's just the lifestyle that we don't agree with.

KORRY: The day of silence events began 10 years ago at the University of Virginia. As they've grown, so have the court cases surrounding them. In 2004, a student in San Diego sued after his principal kept him out of class for wearing a T-shirt proclaiming homosexuality is shameful. A federal appeals court panel just upheld the school's dress code, but according to a conservative legal group, the fight isn't over.

These types of conflicts erupt frequently, but last month, an unusual alliance of both gay and Christian advocates approved new guidelines designed to counter harassment.

Mr. WAYNE JACOBSEN (BridgeBuilders): And do it with a sense of hope that we can actually get on the other side of it with some common ground.

KORRY: Wayne Jacobsen, with the nonprofit advocacy group BridgeBuilders, helped draft the new guidelines.

Mr. JACOBSEN: Even among groups that may disagree about the morality of homosexuality, we're certainly not going to disagree on schools being a safe place for all staff and students.

KORRY: Under the guidelines, schools agree to investigate charges of bullying or discrimination, but also to remain neutral and establish rules for expressing a range of views.

Elaine Korry, NPR News.

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