Throughout her 30 years as a teacher, Patricia Nicolari said she faced repeated harassment from students because of her sexuality. Some of her left notes on her desk asking her if she is a lesbian. Others called her «dyke» in a low voice. And one day, the students carved «Lez» on her car.

“At the time, I remember thinking, ‘I’m going through a lot of 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 has stopped imagining. Instead, she is taking action.

In September, he plans to open a private school in Connecticut designed to be an oasis for LGBTQ students. PROUD Academywhich stands for Proudly Respecting Our Unique Differences Academy, will prioritize what Nicolari saw was lacking in the US education system: a safe, affirming, and bully-free academic environment for LGBTQ students.

The private school curriculum aims to include educational basics such as math and science classes, rigorous courses in the Advanced and honors levels, and lessons touching on LGBTQ history and literature. In addition to fostering a gay-friendly environment, Nicolari said she wants to hire mental health counselors who can address the specific challenges of these young people.

When Nicolari set out to launch PROUD Academy, he planned to enroll only students in grades 7 through 12. But since word got out about the school, Nicolari said, there has also been strong demand from parents with younger children, and plans to accommodate these families.

Interest in PROUD Academy has even crossed state lines. At least two families from other states, including one from Florida, where LGBTQ issues have become a political lightning rod, plan to move to solidly Democratic Connecticut and send their children to school this fall.

“Some parents just say, ‘I just want my child to be happy again,’” Nicolari said. “What if we can offer that to a family? That would be priceless.

While the school does not yet have a set location, Nicolari said it will be in or near the city of New Haven, where Yale University is located, and he hopes to start the school as early as third grade.

Research has long shown that LGBTQ youth suffer disproportionate rates of bullying and mental health problems.

Just over 83% of LGBTQ students said they experienced in-person bullying or assault at school, according to a 2021 study. 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 the past 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 youth in the United States had «seriously considered» suicide within the 12 months prior to the survey. Respondents who were accepted for their LGBTQ identities at home or at school were less likely to have attempted suicide in the previous year, the survey also showed.

Melissa Combs’ transgender son is currently attending a high school in Farmington, Connecticut. Combs, who works as a fundraiser for PROUD Academy, said her son is regularly harassed because of his gender identity and that he was physically assaulted last year during Pride Month in June. She said that sending her son to a school like PROUD Academy «will change her life.»

Melissa Combs’ transgender son, Loki, 13.Courtesy of Melissa Combs

“This means that I will not knowingly send my son into a hostile environment every day,” Combs said. «It means my son will get to be who he is 100% of the time.»

PROUD Academy will join a handful of other LGBTQ-focused schools, including Alabama’s Magic City Acceptance Academy and Ohio’s Albert Einstein Academy, which have opened in recent years as the nation’s culture wars have intensified over LGBTQ issues.

In the past year alone, school officials in states across the country have banned books about gay and trans experiences, removed LGBTQ-affirming signs and flags, and disbanded Gay-Straight Alliance clubs. Simultaneously, conservative lawmakers have introduced hundreds of anti-LGBTQ bills, many of which seek to limit the rights and representation of queer students in American 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 reveal the gender identities of trans students to their parents, restrict bathroom access for trans and non-binary children, and ban trans children from playing on sports teams that correspond to their gender identities.

Nicolari reasoned that recent legislation explains why most of the 30 or so parents who have inquired about enrolling in PROUD Academy have trans or non-binary children.

“The political climate absolutely accelerated the need for a PROUD Academy and the need for PROUD Academies across America,” Nicolari said. “Our children matter. Their lives matter. Your education matters. Your mental health matters. And we cannot allow our students and families to be bullied into being less than what they are capable of being.»