NEW YORK ― Megan Mishkin was drawing a still-life in art class when she heard her name called over the loudspeaker. She packed up her belongings and headed to the main office, where the school secretary was waiting for her. “Everything is going to be OK, sweetie,” the secretary told the 16-year-old high school sophomore when she walked in.
Mishkin, a student at Calvary Christian Academy in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, at the time, tried to remain calm and brace for bad news. The secretary directed her to a room where school leaders waited. The group made about five excruciating minutes of small talk before staff members got down to business.
They suggested Mishkin was broken and in need of fixing. They hoped anti-gay counseling could be the solution.
Calvary Christian Academy is one of at least nine private schools that participate in voucher or tax credit programs and appear to push LGBTQ students to attend a form of conversion therapy, HuffPost has discovered. A 2017 HuffPost investigation found that at least 14% of religious schools in voucher programs advertised anti-gay policies or barred LGBTQ students and staff from admission and employment. Now HuffPost has found that some of these schools go so far as to push a medically discredited and often harmful treatment on their students in an attempt to change their sexual orientation.
Mishkin looked around the room and knew she was outmatched. Only a few days earlier, she had been told she was banned from attending an overnight school trip to a statewide theater competition. Stories of Mishkin’s sexuality had spread ― she had a girlfriend from another school ― and administrators said her classmates’ mothers had complained about their daughters having to share a room with her. It was a crushing, humiliating blow. She had spent months preparing for the competition only to be told that her peers and their families were afraid of her. She cried and tried to explain that she would never have done anything inappropriate with another student.
This time, as school administrators laid out her options, Mishkin tried not to react. The group reminded her they believe the Bible says homosexuality is wrong. Then they told her she would have to attend counseling to discuss her sexuality if she wanted to remain enrolled at Calvary Christian Academy.
“I’m 16. I had just moved and had nobody,” Mishkin, who is now 21 and just finished her junior year at New York University, recalled over coffee in February. “I felt defeated.”
Jason Rachels, the head of school at Calvary Christian Academy, told HuffPost that “‘anti-gay therapy’ is not a process we use or a part of a policy at our school.” However, he did not dispute any specific part of Mishkin’s account.
“We exist to serve families with similar values that align with our school’s statement of faith. We don’t hide our beliefs or encourage anyone to enroll who does not desire the same for their family,” wrote Rachels, who was a Calvary administrator but not head of school when Mishkin was a student there.
Calvary Christian Academy, though private and religious, received just over $3 million in public funding last year through a variety of state voucher and tax credit programs that help funnel taxpayer dollars to scholarships for private schools. The school has participated in such state programs since at least 2012, according to archived versions of the school’s website. Voucher programs use taxpayer money to fund scholarships for lower- or middle-income students, while tax credit programs give individuals and corporations incentives for donating to organizations that distribute private school scholarships.
Advocates of these programs, which exist in 29 states and the District of Columbia, say they help level the playing field by giving poorer students the ability to choose the school that works best for them, an option more affluent students have always had.
But HuffPost’s findings raise questions about what it means to have taxpayer dollars supporting institutions that not only openly discriminate against LGBTQ children but also push them toward programs that have long been debunked by mainstream medical and mental health institutions, and often cause severe harm. One study from 2018 found that LGBTQ people who had received interventions from religious leaders, therapists and parents trying to change their sexual orientation were three times more likely to attempt suicide than other LGBTQ people. Twenty states and the District of Columbia ban licensed health professionals from practicing conversion therapy on minors; Florida is not among those states.
“Schools are places where youth should feel safe and have the opportunity to grow and mature into their best selves. Instead, they find themselves under threat from a practice that has no basis in science and is tied to potentially significant harms,” said Casey Pick, senior fellow for advocacy and government affairs at the Trevor Project, a nonprofit focused on suicide prevention for LGBTQ youth.
Indeed, the number of public dollars going to private schools ― even potentially ones with discriminatory anti-LGBTQ policies ― may increase in the near future. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has always used her position to try to increase private school choice, but she’s had more success during the COVID-19 pandemic: A new program allows states to apply for federal coronavirus relief dollars to help families cover school expenses ranging from technology services to private school tuition. Public school advocates say it’s part of DeVos’s larger agenda to shift funding away from the public school system ― which serves 90% of kids in the country ― to private, often religious, institutions.
Mishkin had only just started attending Calvary earlier that school year, in 2014, after moving from Venezuela. She knew she was gay and that she wouldn’t change. But she was also depressed, tired and afraid of what getting kicked out of school midyear would mean for her college applications and her future. She had endured months of homophobic bullying. She could barely stay awake in class. When she ate, she had trouble keeping food down.
Mishkin’s family ― with whom she says she has a rocky relationship ― thought she should remain enrolled in the school. At this point, her only goal was survival. She agreed to the counseling.
The Human Rights Campaign, a leading LGBTQ civil rights group, defines conversion therapy, also sometimes known as reparative therapy, as “a range of dangerous and discredited practices that falsely claim to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity or expression.” It comes in many forms, including aversion therapy, in which a patient is taught to associate a thought or behavior with an unpleasant physical stimulus (like an electrical shock or chemically induced nausea) to talk therapy, which resembles typical mainstream therapy but in service of changing one’s sexual identity. There is no evidence ― per consensus in the medical community ― that conversion therapy of any form can change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
For this investigation, HuffPost combed through the handbooks, statements of faith and prospective student application forms of more than 500 schools we had previously identified as having anti-gay policies. (More than 7,500 private schools around the country received public funding through voucher or tax credit programs in 2017, and HuffPost examined their websites, handbooks, statements of faith and applications that year to identify which of those schools were religiously affiliated, as well as which had advertised anti-LGBTQ views.)
We found at least eight schools with handbooks that seemed to openly require or encourage some form of counseling for kids experiencing same-sex attraction, which experts say often acts as a euphemistic term for conversion therapy. HuffPost reached out to each of these schools with questions about what this counseling looks like. Only one responded, noting the pastor or trained professional providing the counseling decides what type of “help” to provide to students.
We also found four additional schools whose handbooks had vaguer policies, indicating but not explicitly stating that anti-LGBTQ counseling could be a consequence for same-sex attraction or gender nonconformity.
These policies are typically intentionally vague, according to Pick. That way, schools have a great amount of discretion and can also avoid scrutiny from the outside world.
“Conversion therapists, as a whole, are being very proactive about rebranding. They recognize that public opinion is turning against sexual reorientation or gender identity change efforts,” Pick said. “Many will try to say we’re not engaging in conversion therapy ― we’re just trying to get people to live consistent with their religious values. Some of these school policies that adopt this same framework of requiring students to live consistent with religious values may well be concealing what is in practical effect conversion therapy.”
Our numbers likely represent a bare minimum. Calvary Christian Academy’s website, for example, says the school believes “acceptable sexual behavior is exclusively reserved to occur within the confines of a monogamous marriage union of a consenting man and woman,” but it doesn’t publicly promote support for conversion therapy. It’s likely that many other schools quietly promote conversion therapy without stating so in public materials. Additionally, more states have adopted or expanded their school voucher or tax credit program since HuffPost created its database in 2017, and any schools that have benefited from these programs for the first time over the last three years are not reflected in our count.
But some schools make their policies clear. For example, Westwood Christian School in Miami, which received nearly $1.3 million this year via voucher and tax credit programs, outlines its policy in its handbook. It makes parents promise that if their child “believes that he/she is gay, homosexual, lesbian, or bisexual, I/we will encourage such child to disclose the situation to the Senior Pastor or Administrator and seek guidance and counseling through the Church.” It says a child will be asked to withdraw if administrators learn a child has not sought counseling, has refused counseling, or has participated in homosexual activity after church counseling. The school did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The schools that maintain these policies are all across the country, including in Wisconsin, Arizona and Virginia. Collectively, all of the schools HuffPost found to push conversion therapy received over $8 million in public funding during the last school year for which public information was available.
Another Student Speaks Out
Andrew LaFontaine, who attended Calvary Christian Academy at the same time as Mishkin, said school administrators also pressured him to attend conversion therapy after he reported to them that he had been sexually harassed by another male student. Instead of focusing on the trauma of the alleged harassment, they pushed him to attend counseling to talk about his sexual orientation, which they perceived to be a problem. LaFontaine ― who was mostly closeted at the time but is now an out gay man ― vehemently denied that he was gay until the school backed off. Still, school leaders then made him meet with a teacher to go over Scripture and talk about his life.
“I honestly think that was the beginning of me spiraling into depression,” said LaFontaine, 20, who is now a veterinarian’s assistant and student in New York City. “It was an easy decision to decide to deny [my sexuality] because I knew the implications.”
Rachels, the head of school, told HuffPost that “we care for [LaFontaine and Mishkin] deeply and pray that they are doing well.”
“Bullying is something we take seriously at CCA. Regardless of where a student is in their personal journey, we do not tolerate bullying, and have strong policies around that,” he wrote in an email.
After the administrators’ meeting with Mishkin, the man who was Calvary’s assistant principal at the time sent an email to one of her family members outlining her options. The email confirms the account Mishkin provided to HuffPost. Calvary did not respond to a question about whether that assistant principal is still employed by the school.
“When we met, Megan was very upset and defensive about her sexual preferences,” read the email, which HuffPost has reviewed. “We decided that [Megan and her mom] could take until Monday to decide if CCA is the best place for her to be. They would decide either to pull her out of CCA because Megan didn’t want to be responsible for her sexual preferences and influencing others, or repent and ask to continue at CCA thus allowing us to set her up with a counselor/mentor and begin discussing these issues of sexuality that she is wrestling with.”
The whole meeting lasted about 30 minutes, Mishkin said. Afterward, she got to work finding a counselor who she hoped would understand her dilemma. She texted a former student, whom the school had also pushed to go to counseling but for reasons unrelated to sexuality.
The student told Mishkin about a sympathetic therapist who was part of a Christian counseling service and approved by the school. Rachels told HuffPost that Calvary does “not have therapists on staff or a relationship with an organization that offers those services,” referring to “anti-gay therapy,” but he did not refute the specifics of Mishkin’s account. Indeed, Mishkin did not use a therapist employed by the school and found her counselor independently.
A few weeks later, she had her first session.
An estimated 16,000 youth will receive conversion therapy from a mental health professional before they turn 18, according to a 2019 study from the Williams Institute at UCLA. An estimated 57,000 more will receive it from a religious der.
“It is not therapy. It is not helpful. It is harmful, and it needs to be stopped,” Pick said.
But administrators at evangelical schools with anti-LGBTQ policies maintain they have a right to educate children however they see fit.
“Parents who choose to enroll their children in a private, Christian school using voucher funds have chosen to do so with full knowledge of the school’s positions regarding philosophy of education, admissions, biblical worldview integration into academics, morality, and positions on a variety of cultural topics including marriage and sexuality as defined in Scripture,” Wesley Scott, executive director of the National Alliance of Christian Schools, wrote in an email to HuffPost.
“Private, Christian schools are autonomous [and] have the right to apply these positions within their admissions process, faculty and student handbooks, disciplinary and biblical counseling procedures,” he said.
Mishkin sees it differently. Her school may have thought it was putting her on a path to salvation, but she felt abandoned when she was screaming out for help.
She was depressed and self-harming. She wished school leaders could see the sadness that was eating her alive. Instead, she says she only heard from them when other students brought up her sexuality or called her an atheist.
“No one was standing up for me. There were no teachers showing interest in me,” she says.
But in some ways, Mishkin got incredibly lucky with her therapist, a selection that made all the difference.
Secretly Getting ‘Normal’ Therapy
Mishkin’s counseling sessions took place in a nearby church’s office. The counselor was a woman in her early 30s with a kind demeanor.
She asked Mishkin about her faith. She asked her about her sexuality. When she realized Mishkin was at peace with it, Mishkin says she backed off.
“She was like, ‘You’re not here to stop being gay, are you?’ And I was like, ‘No, not at all,’” Mishkin recalled. “She really saved my life back then.”
Mishkin was relieved. The counselor asked her if she had other issues she wanted to unpack, so the teen started attending regular therapy while her school thought she was trying to become straight.
At the end of the school year, Mishkin applied for a spot at a secular private school. The admissions process took months, so she asked Calvary if she would be allowed to return for her junior year, just in case. They asked her if she still had a girlfriend. She told them she had found the way of the Lord and was no longer gay ― a “ridiculous lie,” she says now. Over the summer, she found out she had gotten into the other school.
Mishkin looks back on that year as if she was in a dissociative state, going through the motions without much thought or agency. To survive, she muted her personality until she would fit into the mold her school had created for her.
“I think back on Calvary, and I just remember various offices, and crying, and various doctors, and throwing up,” she says matter-of-factly, sadness in her eyes. “[Calvary] just really made me not take care of myself. I was so hated. So oppressed. ... Even when it was like in third person, it’s not fun to hear people use the Bible to talk about hating you.”
Mishkin is now studying sound production and living in the East Village of New York with a roommate. She likes NYU and the friends she has made there. After muting herself for so long, she’s trying to figure out her actual interests, who she wants to spend her time with, what she truly thinks. She tries to imagine her life is just starting.
“Since I was born, I always felt uncomfortable, out of place,” Mishkin says. “When I got here, it was like I could breathe.”