By EDDI TREVIZO -- The Arizona Republic
PHOENIX -- When Kailee Hernandez told her friends at Central High School last year that she's gay, things changed between them.
Girls she was once close to mocked the then-sophomore, acting as if she was hitting on them. When she entered a classroom, they sometimes just stared at her.
Kailee, 15, dropped out before the school year was over.
This fall, she is back in class, at Q High, one of a handful of programs or schools across the country for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youths that offers high-school courses and other activities in what its founders call a harassment-free environment.
Kailee said the change has been dramatic. At Q High she can focus on schoolwork, preparing for college and a career as a pharmacist without being distracted and demoralized by taunts.
"At my regular school, I met people every day that had something negative to say about who I am," she said. "I'm getting support here. For the first time in my life, I was very excited to go to school."
While state law and school policies prohibit bullying, advocates and education experts say safe-harbor programs such as Q High are needed for situations where schools don't do enough to protect gay and transgender students.
When bullying endangers students or causes them to drop out, these programs can keep children safe and on track academically, some experts and advocates say.
"In a perfect world, we wouldn't need a separate school, but until we can get rid of homophobia, I think we are still going to need special environments," said Stephen Russell, a professor at the University of Arizona who studies health and development of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youths.
Q High, short for Queer High, is technically not a school.
One-n-Ten, a local nonprofit that provides gay youths with mentoring and other services to promote self-acceptance, healthy choices and work preparation, partnered with the online public-charter school Arizona Virtual Academy to create the hybrid program. It's the first in Arizona and one of only a handful nationally.
One-n-Ten officials set out to create Q High after learning young people participating in their LGBT youth program weren't attending school because they had been bullied.
"We found that staggering," said Stacey Jay Cavaliere, programs manager at One-n-Ten.
The school is geared toward gay youths but is open to any student.
With private donations, the nonprofit set up a computer lab with enough equipment for about 25 students. In March, the group launched a pilot program with 10 students.
Q High's first full year of coursework began in August, with 14 students. Students enroll in either an 18-week program of six to eight classes or special "block" programs of three classes over nine weeks.
Bill addresses homosexuality
Last year, Gov. Jan Brewer signed House Bill 2415, which requires public school districts to define and prohibit bullying, harassment, cyberbullying and intimidation. The law ordered schools to keep written accounts of incidents for at least six years and allow students access to forms to report bullying.
Arizona is one of eight states that prohibit instruction that "promotes a homosexual life-style" or "portrays homosexuality as a positive alternative life-style." The law was originally created to regulate AIDS instruction, but experts say its ambiguous wording can be interpreted as restricting how educators talk about homosexuality in all classroom situations.
Such laws make school leaders wary of mentioning gays in a positive light or intervening on behalf of gay students, Russell said. Those rules can also make school leaders reluctant to improve resources for gay students and deter bullying based on a student's sexual orientation, Russell said.
One national study suggests that gay students are frequent targets of harassment at school. The survey by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network found that of 8,584 LGBT students surveyed in 2011, 82 percent were verbally harassed, 38 percent were physically harassed and about 18 percent were assaulted while at school.
The study also found that students who were bullied often skipped class to avoid tormentors. Teens who were bullied consistently had, on average, lower grade-point averages than students who experienced less harassment.
Advocates argue that although removing gay kids from traditional schools is not ideal, it's necessary to help children who are persistently bullied.
Education experts said hybrid programs like Q High will continue to crop up until states and schools implement policies that specifically protect gay students and adopt a school curriculum that includes positive portrayals of gays. Other hybrid programs include the Alliance School in Milwaukee, Harvey Milk High School in New York, and Opportunities for Learning Hollywood Center at the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center.
"It is wonderful that the schools are stepping up, but it is also an indictment," said Catherine Lugg, an associate professor at Rutgers University who studies educational history and policy. "They have been bullied in a system that says we are to serve all students regardless of their identity."
Different is normal
On campus, Q High looks like a college-student union. There are colorful posters on the walls, common rooms and computer labs.
Almost all the students at Q High tell similar stories about bullying, intolerance or feeling shunned at previous schools.
Andrew Alejo, 16, was encouraged to sign up for Q High by his mother. On a recent school day, Andrew wore a shoulder-length wig with blond highlights, dark-red lipstick and blush on his cheeks. His look would have turned heads at Carl Hayden Community High School, his old school in Phoenix.
But at Q High, being different is normal.
"At my old school, I kept myself to myself. I never went to school in drag," said Andrew, a junior.
Q High freshman Kristoffer Abel, 15, dropped out of Paseo Hills Elementary School, in Phoenix, when he was in the eighth grade.
Kristoffer, who was born a girl but identifies as boy, said that before he left Paseo Hills a former friend along with others began threatening him at school.
"They said they were going to hurt me," Kristoffer recalled.
Another student reported the threats to the principal. The bully was suspended, but the threats persisted off campus, Kristoffer said.
Kristoffer's friends are mostly fellow students at Q High. He's working through classes such as algebra, English and digital photography and said he feels safer at his new school.
"Nobody is mean to each other here," Kristoffer said.