Throughout her 30 years as a teacher, Patricia Nicolari said she faced repeated harassment from students due to her sexuality. Some left notes on her desk asking if she is a lesbian. Others called her a “dyke” under their breaths. And one day, students carved “Lez” into her car.
“At the time, I remember thinking, ‘I’m going through so much anxiety as a teacher. I can’t imagine what our students go through questioning themselves and how unsafe it is for them to come out,’” Nicolari said.
Years later, Nicolari is done imagining. Instead, she’s taking action.
In September, she plans to open a private school in Connecticut that’s designed to be an oasis for LGBTQ students. PROUD Academy, which stands for Proudly Respecting Our Unique Differences Academy, will prioritize what Nicolari saw lacking in the U.S. education system: a safe, affirming and bully-free academic environment for LGBTQ students.
The private school’s curriculum aims to include educational basics like math and science classes, rigorous courses at the Advanced Placement and honors levels, and lessons that touch upon LGBTQ history and literature. In addition to fostering a queer-friendly environment, Nicolari said she wants to hire mental health counselors who can cater to the specific challenges of these youths.
When Nicolari first set out to launch PROUD Academy, she planned to only enroll students in grades seven through 12. But since word about the school has spread, Nicolari said, there’s been a strong demand from parents with younger children as well, and she now plans to accommodate these families.
The interest in PROUD Academy has even crossed state borders. At least two families from out of state — including one from Florida, where LGBTQ issues have become a political lightning rod — plan to relocate to the solidly Democratic Connecticut and send their kids to the school this fall.
“Some parents are just saying, ‘I just want my child to be happy again,’” Nicolari said. “And if we can offer that to a family? That’d be priceless.”
While the school doesn’t have a set location yet, Nicolari said it will be in or near the city of New Haven, where Yale University is, and she hopes to start the school from grade three.
Research has long shown that LGBTQ youths suffer from disproportionate rates of bullying and mental health issues.
Just over 83% of LGBTQ students said they experienced in-person harassment or assault at school, according to a 2021 survey by GLSEN, an advocacy group that aims to end LGBTQ discrimination in education. And nearly 1 in 3 respondents said they missed at least one day of school in preceding month as a result of feeling unsafe.
A survey released last year by LGBTQ youth suicide prevention group The Trevor Project found that nearly half of queer youths in the United States had “seriously considered” suicide within the 12 months prior to being surveyed. Respondents who were accepted for their LGBTQ identities at home or at school were less likely to have attempted suicide in the prior year, the survey also showed.
Melissa Combs’ transgender son currently attends a middle school in Farmington, Connecticut. Combs, who is working as a fundraiser for PROUD Academy, said her son is regularly bullied for his gender identity and was physically assaulted last year during Pride Month in June. She said sending her son to a school like PROUD Academy will be “life-changing.”
“This means that I won’t knowingly send my child into a hostile environment every day,” Combs said. “It means that my kid will get to be who he is 100% of the time.”
PROUD Academy will join a handful of other LGBTQ-centered schools — including Alabama’s Magic City Acceptance Academy and Ohio’s Albert Einstein Academy — that have opened within the last handful of years, as the nation’s culture wars over LGBTQ issues have intensified.
Within the last year alone, school officials in states across the country have banned books about gay and trans experiences, removed LGBTQ-affirming posters and flags, and disbanded Gay-Straight Alliance clubs. Simultaneously, conservative lawmakers have introduced hundreds of anti-LGBTQ bills, with many seeking to limit the rights and representation of queer students in U.S. schools.
Of the more than 200 anti-LGBTQ bills introduced so far this year, about half restrict the rights of trans students in schools, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Among the large cohort of bills is legislation that would force teachers to disclose trans students’ gender identities to their parents, restrict bathroom access for trans and nonbinary kids, and ban trans children from playing on sports teams that correspond with their gender identities.
Nicolari reasoned that the recent legislation explains why the majority of the roughly 30 parents who have inquired about enrollment at PROUD Academy have trans or nonbinary children.
“The political climate absolutely accelerated the need for a PROUD Academy and a need for PROUD Academies across the United States,” Nicolari said. “Our kids matter. Their lives matter. Their education matters. Their mental health matters. And we can’t have our students and families be bullied into being less than they’re capable of being.”