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Case Narrative

Davis High School
Davis High School is located in a cozy little New England town approximately twenty miles west of a large city. It is a fairly wealthy community, with many parents commuting into the city each day for high-powered jobs. Tucked away amidst large oak trees and winding roads, Davis High School is well known for its high scores on state mandated standardized tests.

Jacob Stevens, Math Teacher
Jacob Stevens is a thirty-four-year-old math teacher who has been at Davis High School for three years. Prior to that, he and Matthew, his partner, lived on the west coast. Jacob made it his policy not to talk to his students about his personal life, so in general when they would ask him if he was married or if he had a girlfriend, he would change the subject or simply joke that teachers don't have lives outside of school. The truth was that he lived about thirty minutes away from the school and did have a life, where he and Matthew were actively involved in the gay community. Jacob had never run into one of his students while he was on “personal time” and wasn't particularly worried that he would. He wasn't afraid of telling his students that he was gay, but he felt that it would be a distraction for them. When he was with the kids, he wanted to focus on them, not him.

Jacob took his job very seriously. He enjoyed teaching math, but also loved spending time with the kids outside of his classroom. For this reason, he became the faculty advisor for the Student Government Association and started an after-school club to teach kids how to design web pages. When he could, he also went to sports events. He liked to do this because it gave him an opportunity to spend time with some of the parents.

One parent Jacob had become particularly close with over the past couple years, Jill Rosensteel, whose son Brian played varsity basketball and baseball and was involved in Student Government. He and Jill frequently sat together at basketball games and chatted about Brian. Brian was a very popular high school junior and his friends expressed jealousy that he always had girls hanging around him.

Jacob liked Jill because she always made her kids the number one priority in her very hectic life. She beamed with pride when she talked about their accomplishments.

Jill Rosensteel, Brian's Mother
“When my ex-husband announced that he was involved with another woman six years ago, I packed up all of my belongings and moved myself and my three boys to this suburb. I found a job in an accounting firm and work hard to give my boys some of the extras that other kids in the neighborhood have. We live in one of the most inexpensive houses in town, but we have made it pretty homey over the years, with my kids' A+ schoolwork and artwork decorating all my wall space.”

“Brian and Steven, my two oldest boys, had a hard time when we first moved out here, but who could blame them? They missed their dad and he seemed to want nothing to do with them. I was a wreck on the inside, but knew I had to get myself together for them. My mom tried to get me to go to counseling but I didn't want any more people involved with our lives. Instead, I just focused all of my energy on the kids. I guess that's why I haven't really made any close friends around here. I've always been too busy playing chess with Chad (age 8), kicking a soccer ball around with Steven (age 11), or quizzing Brian (age 17) on his Spanish. I think we've done pretty well for ourselves. All of the boys seem to be fairly well adjusted. My theory is that families need to try harder to work out problems themselves instead of always telling everyone else their business. I think this whole therapy thing has gotten way out of hand.”

“My oldest son, Brian, has always been popular and outgoing at school. Recently, however, his grades have been slipping and he has become very withdrawn. It struck me as strange when he first started keeping to himself about six months ago. I thought maybe he was rejected by a girl or something. You know teenagers, every little thing is a huge melodrama. I asked Brian several times if there was something bothering him, but he kept telling me everything was fine. I know that's not true, but I can't for the life of me figure out what the problem is. In the past few months, I have walked into his room a couple of times when his eyes have been red and swollen. I wish he would just talk to me.”

The Situation
One day after their weekly Student Government meeting ended, Brian asked Jacob if he had a minute. Always willing to talk to one of his students, and a bit concerned about the nervousness he heard in Brian's voice, Jacob suggested the two of them go back to Jacob's classroom so they wouldn't be disturbed. Once there, Jacob closed the door and asked Brian what was going on. Brian looked right at his teacher and asked, “Mr. Stevens, are you gay?”

The shock of the question must have shown on Jacob's face because Brian quickly apologized and continued, “I saw a bumper sticker on your car that says 'Hatred is not a family value' and one of the guys I was with said that must mean you are a homo. I'm not asking you because I want to spread your business around school or anything, I just ... well, I just need to know.”

Jacob thought for a moment and then decided that if he were ever going to come out at school, this would be as good a situation as any. He certainly wasn't going to lie when asked directly. And he knew Brian well enough to know that he must be asking for an important reason. So he looked back at Brian and said quietly, “Yes Brian, I am gay.”

It seemed to Brian that an eternity had passed between the time that he asked Mr. Stevens the question that had been on his mind for over a year and the time he heard the response. But as soon as he heard Mr. Stevens say “yes,” he felt a huge burden lift off of him. He had been so afraid, so lonely, so confused. At last there was someone that he could talk to.

Brian's Predicament
“Okay, I admit, I added a few details to the story of my visit with Mr. Stevens. I told my mom that I had been with him all afternoon and that he told me all about his past boyfriends, how cool his family has been about him being gay, and how open everyone at school is. I also threw in that Mr. Stevens told me about a few kids in school who were gay. Of course that's probably impossible. I'm sure I'm the only one. The truth is that Mr. Stevens and I didn't get any farther than him telling me he was gay because I got nervous and ran out of the room. I have been driving around all day trying to figure out what to do.”

“I don't know why I told my mom all that other stuff. I guess I just wanted to see how she would react, kind of to test the waters. It's a good thing I did too, because man, did she flip out! There's no way I can tell her that I think I might be gay if she couldn't even handle a complete stranger being gay. I mean, she knows Mr. Stevens and I thought she liked him a lot.”

“I don't know what I am going to do now. My mom seemed so upset that I'm worried she might go to school and talk to Mr. Stevens. Gosh, I hope she doesn't. I wonder what he would tell her. I can't handle my mom knowing this. No way.”

Jill's Response
“Naturally I was concerned when Brian wasn't home for dinner. He's always been so responsible. It's not like him not to leave a note or a message. When he finally did get home I felt relieved, that is, until I heard where he had been all afternoon.”

“Totally inappropriate. That's what I say. There is absolutely no reason for a teacher to talk to a student about boyfriends! That is over the line. And to tell Brian about kids in school who are gay? Who does he think he is? I am shocked that Jacob would do this! I used to have so much respect for him.”

“And then he called our house at 8pm, after keeping Brian out all afternoon! I tried to grab the phone away from Brian so I could give Jacob a piece of my mind, but Brian wouldn't let me. I don't know what they talked about because Brian went into his bedroom and closed the door. That makes me even more nervous. I don't want this guy influencing my son.”

Jacob's Response
“I thought about chasing Brian after he took off out of my classroom. I wanted to tell him it was okay and that I understood why he was asking. I can't believe I didn't pick up on it earlier. In the end, I decided to wait awhile and let Brian have some time to himself. But I really wanted to check in with him because I was pretty worried. I know how hard this can be and I also know the statistics about kids who commit suicide. They say that one third of them are dealing with issues of sexual orientation. I would feel so responsible if Brian hurt himself, especially because I am probably his only resource right now. I know this town doesn't have any kind of gay/lesbian support group. Anyway, that's why I called him at home. I just wanted to check in and make sure he was safe.”

“When we were on the phone Brian told me that he was going to have to quit Student Government because his mother doesn't want him hanging around with me. Apparently he told her that I was gay. Her response really surprised me. I always thought Jill was very reasonable and open-minded. I guess I have been reading her wrong. Anyway, I think she is making a bad decision and although Brian insisted that his mother wants nothing to do with me, I feel like I need to talk to her and try to work this out. I wonder if she knows Brian is questioning his own sexuality. I get the feeling that she is in the dark about it.”

“Although I am hurt that Jill would cut all ties with me because I am gay, I am also very worried about how this will affect Brian. She is sending a pretty strong message to him. Basically, I am torn about how involved I should get. I don't want to push Brian into telling his mom if he is not ready, but I worry that I won't be able to talk to his mom without explaining what is going on. I know that's not my place but I don't know what else to do.”

The people and events in this case are based on a real-life situation; however, the names of all persons and places have been disguised to protect confidentiality.



Discussion Questions

  • What is Jill's mindset concerning her family and the world outside? Is she prepared to deal with her son's problems regarding sexual identity?
  • Why does Brian tell his mother that Jacob is gay and embellish the conversation he had with Jacob?
  • What is Brian's dilemma? What role does he have in resolving the dilemma?
  • What is Jacob's dilemma?
  • Is it appropriate for Jacob to share confidential information about Brian with his mother?
  • What personal beliefs, values or issues do you think teachers should not discuss with students. Stretch your mind to think of a few that you think are “inappropriate.” Why?



Instructor Notes

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Reaching out to the Only One out There Commentary by Arthur Lipkin

Arthur Lipkin is a research associate in Human Development and Psychology at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is a widely respected scholar of gay and lesbian issues, and the author of “Understanding Homosexuality, Changing Schools” published by Westview Press in 1999.

We cannot ignore the setting of this case—a top-performing school in an affluent New England town. The parents with high-powered jobs are likely to have had significantly higher education. Research shows that homophobia decreases with education.1 That is not to say that there would be no resistance to openly gay teachers and students; however, it does make the school's lack of action on these matters less understandable.

The plight of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered (glbt) adolescents has become familiar to many youth specialists—harassment, physical attack, low self-esteem, suicidality, substance abuse, eating disorders, HIV, and pregnancy.2 Massachusetts' 1999 Youth Risk Behavior Survey of 4,415 randomly selected students points to significantly greater risk to glbt youth than to heterosexual ones.3 Among its findings, glbt students were:


  • More than 3.5 times as likely to have skipped school during the last month because of feeling unsafe.
  • Nearly 2.5 times as likely to have been in a fight at school in the last year
  • Three times as likely to have been threatened or injured with weapon at school in the last year.
  • Four times more likely to have attempted suicide in the last year.
  • Over 3 times more likely to have consumed alcohol at school in last month.
  • Over 3 times more likely to have used marijuana at school in last month.
  • Nearly 3.5 times more likely to have used cocaine in lifetime.


Even apparently thriving glbt students can be at risk of the “best little boy or girl in the world” syndrome—a compulsive striving for excellence as a cover for a shameful flaw.4 Brian has been popular, athletic, involved in school affairs. His mother has judged him mature and responsible. Yet for all this, his crisis of sexual identity puts him at psychological, perhaps even physical risk.

Although the interchange between Brian and Jacob may have been enough for the moment, continued follow-up is required. A torrent of gay-positive counseling may not be necessary in every case, but a competent adult must check in with such struggling students and make him or herself available.

School outreach to parents of glbt youth can be difficult.5 Many youth, even those who come out to teachers, would not consent to having their parents informed. Perhaps the best a school can do to facilitate such communication is through a broader outreach to parent organizations (PTA, parent councils, et al.). Community organizations like PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) can be helpful collaborators in these meetings as well as serving as referrals for parents.

Teachers and other adults must take responsibility to be out for kids. Jacob resolves not to lie about his sexuality when asked directly shows that he is not completely closeted.6 Yet he has not understood that his students' indirect questions might have evidenced a suspicion that he is gay and that his evasions might have contributed to homophobia by implying that he is ashamed of his homosexuality. Schools must protect and affirm teachers who are out.

Every secondary school should have a gay/straight alliance with an adult advisor who has some expertise in glbt youth and their needs. It might fall to Jacob himself to assume the responsibility, although glbt teachers should not be forced to do so. Besides being a popular and competent role model, Jacob has much to offer a gay/straight alliance7 as an experienced advisor to student government, a good communicator to parents, and a skilled web designer.

1 Herek, G. M., & Glunt, E. K. (1991). AIDS-related attitudes in the United States: A preliminary conceptualization. Journal of Sex Research, 28, 99–123. Herek, G. M., & Glunt, E. K. (1993). In J. B. Pryor & G. D. Reeder. (1993). Herek, G. M., & Glunt, E. K. Interpersonal contact and the heterosexuals' attitudes toward gay men: Results from a national survey. Journal of Sex Research, 30, 239–244. Keen, L. (1998, August 28). Harris poll turns up surprising results. Washington, DC: Blade.
2 See Lipkin, A. (1999). Counseling issues (ch. 8, pp. 141–193). In Understanding homosexuality, changing schools. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
3 Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Dept. of Education, Youth Risk Behavior Survey Results, 1993, 1995, 1997. In 1995, 59 schools participated in the survey. 4,159 student respondents (77% rate). Overall response rate of 72%. Accuracy to plus or minus 3%. Results were statistically weighted by the CDC. In 1997: 58 schools, 3,982 student respondents (79% rate, accuracy to plus or minus 3%).
4 Gonsiorek, J. C. (1988). Mental health issues of gay and lesbian adolescents. Journal of Adolescent Health Care, 9, 118.
5 In Making Schools Safe For Gay and Lesbain Youth: Breaking the Silence in Schools and in Families, Education Report, The Governor's Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth, Feb. 25, 1993, the Commission recommends: “School-based counseling for family members of gay and lesbian youth and community-based assistance in the P-FLAG model.”
6 See Griffin, P. (1991). Identity management strategies among lesbian and gay educators. Qualitative Studies in Education, 4, 3.
7 See “Gay/Straight Alliances” in Lipkin, Understanding Homosexuality, 273–276.

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