LGBT students

Danielle Quackenbush, left and Christoph Walbeck, both 18, talk about their school experiences as LGBT students. (Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun / August 7, 2014)

DiJohn Thomas grew up bouncing between foster placements in Baltimore, never knowing how his peers, the next foster parents or staff at his next group home would respond to his being gay.

Sometimes the adults responded negatively, he said, and his peers with their fists.

"I've never been homeless to the point where I had to sleep outside, but there were times when I would leave group homes and wouldn't have anywhere to go but to a friend's house, sleeping on a couch," said Thomas, who is now 21 and first entered the foster system at age 6. "Most of the time, I would fight or people wouldn't like me just because they knew I was gay."

Advocates for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community say Thomas's experiences are all too common. In a report to be released today, they call on state officials to improve services for marginalized and bullied LGBT youth in schools, foster homes and detention centers across the state.

They cite national statistics showing LGBT youths make up much as 40 percent of the homeless children on the streets of Baltimore and other major cities, and a 2011 survey in Maryland by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network that found about 80 percent of LGBT students reported verbal harassment and 30 percent said they had been physically assaulted.

"We think the state should have an interest in making sure these ... systems aren't so hostile. When youth are in their care, they want to run away," said Diana Philip, policy director at Free State Legal, an LGBT legal advocacy group that helped produce the new report with a coalition of youth service providers called the Youth Equality Alliance.

The report recommends more detailed training for staff and foster parents and the creation of new LGBT liaison positions.

It also recommends establishing Gay-Straight Alliances at every middle and high school in the state and introducing curriculum on "LGBT rights, issues and history" from kindergarten through high school — steps state officials said would elicit substantial opposition.

"That's going to be a hot topic issue because we have some folks saying, 'We don't need to discuss this in middle schools,' " said Michael Ford, a school safety specialist for the state's education department who reviewed the study's recommendations.

Still, officials in all three systems said they are reviewing the study, and that efforts to improve the atmosphere for LGBT children in their programs have been in the works for years.

Eric Solomon, a spokesman for the state juvenile services department, said staff there has been working with the study's authors, and the department "has policies and practices in place to ensure that all youth are treated fairly in a nondiscriminatory and safe environment."

Brian Schleter, a spokesman for the state human resources department, which oversees the foster system, said the department is "committed" to supporting LGBT youth and is in the process of creating new staff training.

Ford said the school system recently began tracking data on bullying based on sexual orientation or gender identity, and has a resource guide for LGBT students on its website. State officials are also having conversations with district administrators on how to deal with "this growing population of individuals who are coming out, the transgender students, the gender-nonconforming students," he said.

Thomas and several other LGBT youth in Maryland joined the advocates in calling for improvements.

Thomas said one fight he got in when he was 16 landed him in a juvenile detention center on an assault charge, and the anti-gay harassment was worse there than in his foster homes.

"They wanted to put me in the infirmary for my protection, but I told them no because I didn't want to be segregated," he said.

Christoph Walbeck, 18, who is transgender, said making it through school was difficult, even at Dulaney High School in Baltimore County, where he graduated in June. The school has a group for LGBT students called Spectrum and a mostly affirming staff, Walbeck said, but he still faced harassment from other students and school policies that limited where he could change for gym and go to the bathroom.

"It made me feel really unsafe," Walbeck said.

Lynda Whitlock, Dulaney's principal, said "all students matter and need support," and that she, her staff and schools officials "work very hard to communicate that to everyone."

Danielle Quackenbush, 18 and also a recent graduate of Dulaney, said she was harassed for years for being in a relationship with another girl.

In one incident, a teacher responded to Quackenbush being verbally harassed by simply moving the bully to the opposite side of the classroom, she said. In another, Quackenbush, said a male student threatened to assault her. "It unnerved me to the point that I didn't come to school the next day," she said.

Quackenbush's brother, Sid Quackenbush, 17, who is transgender, recently moved to Canada to live with his mother's cousin and attend a smaller, LGBT-friendly school there, after being overwhelmed at Dulaney as he tried to transition at a school where many of his fellow students knew him and referred to him as a girl.

In an email, he said he "made a decent wallflower" at Dulaney and wasn't bullied too severely, but worried about making friends.

His mother, Elizabeth McNeilly, said she wishes he could have found an alternative place to go to school closer to home. His sister said she has talked to LGBT kids across the region who are struggling with bullying, and any policy changes to address the problem would be beneficial.

"It shouldn't be optional to stop bullying," she said.

krector@baltsun.com

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