Dying for Change
As he choked down handfuls of aspirin in the stall of a Fort Worth high school bathroom, 16-year-old Caleb felt precisely nothing.
Beaten by bullies and betrayed by close friends, persecuted by family members and disappointed with counselors, the sophomore couldn’t think what else to do. He was bisexual and he knew it.
The problem was that everyone else seemed to know it too.
By the time Caleb saved up enough allowance money to buy $30 worth of painkillers at the grocery store, he felt nothing but alone. Suicide seemed like the only option left to him.
“I just cracked under pressure,” said Caleb, who asked that his real name not be used. “I couldn’t feel anything. It was horrible. I was tired of being a pain on everyone else … . Next thing I know I’m on a gurney having my stomach pumped.”
The suicides and suicide attempts of kids like Caleb have fueled a national movement to address bullying in schools, gradually eroding an old-school mentality that shrugs off harassment among children as an unavoidable, even necessary, rite of passage: Suck it up. Fight back. Get over it.
With repeated cases of teenagers hanging themselves in suburban bedrooms, it becomes harder to look away. Bullying transcends the boundaries of race, gender, and creed, but abundant research shows that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students suffer extreme harassment with greater frequency than all other student groups. They are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers, and nearly all of them –– 86 percent –– experience abuse.
Few school districts in Texas have made any attempt to address bullying of gay and lesbian students specifically, but Cowtown is one of them, expanding its anti-bullying policy last year to include specific protections for LGBT students.
A year later, the district’s efforts to actually enforce that policy are getting mixed reviews from the gay community.
Seven teachers and school staffers interviewed by Fort Worth Weekly said that continued incidents, some of them instigated by principals, show that district officials are still ignoring LGBT students’ requests for help.
Many of their complaints were about officials who not only don’t offer help for such students, but who actively steer them away from LGBT support groups. One principal, they said, has worked to marginalize the gay student group on his campus — possibly in violation of federal anti-discrimination laws. One gay teacher was put on administrative leave after citing a student for in-class gay-bashing. And a school finance officer sent an e-mail to all district employees calling homosexuality an “abomination” that the district should not encourage. Gay teachers were incensed that there were no public repercussions for her action.
It isn’t that the district actively obstructs gay-friendly policies, but rather that it’s allowing them to die by inaction, said Bernardo Vallarino, a gay Fort Worth teacher.
“They fear a backlash from the community, from religious or political groups that might find it inappropriate,” he said. “Maybe the fear is well-founded.”
Teachers and administrators don’t have to approve of homosexuality to enforce anti-bullying policies that protect students, Vallarino said. “The community has a right to its own cultural norms, but when they become a part of a larger institution — a school, for example — they have to make sure that other cultural groups are protected as well.”
Vallarino and other openly gay teachers and district employees agree that the district does deserve some credit. But they want the new policy to be enforced with the kind of far-reaching diversity training recommended by several national groups dedicated to ending abuse and suicides among teenagers.
That enforcement will happen, said Jon Nelson, a member of LGBT group Fairness Fort Worth, which helped the city reform its employee policies following a disastrous, nationally reported police raid in 2009 on the Rainbow Lounge, a gay club.
The city’s policy has become a blueprint for the rest of the state, said Nelson, who is now working with school officials to similarly reform the district’s policies.
Bringing an LGBT-friendly attitude to the district will be more complex, but Cowtown is already ahead of the curve, he said.
“Fort Worth is ground zero … . Black bullying, Hispanic bullying, bullying of girls –– a policy must take into account all of those groups,” Nelson said. “But it’s important to remember that you and I would not be having this discussion if gay and lesbian kids had not been killing themselves.”
Several school districts in Texas, including Fort Worth, already have policies prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation, but few have taken the extra step of protecting nontraditional expressions of gender, which can be anything from a boy wearing nail polish to a girl with a crew cut.
That’s what the Fort Worth school board did last summer, when it expanded the district’s anti-bullying policy to prohibit harassment based on “gender identity and expression,” possibly in an attempt to keep pace with the city.
The handful of district officials who returned phone calls said they are committed to backing up their new policy despite inevitable opposition.
Schools trustee Carlos Vasquez, who is gay, said he received several hateful comments after the school board passed the new policy. He defended the district’s efforts on behalf of gay teens.
The board’s action “made a huge difference,” Vasquez said. “I hear the stories about bullying firsthand … . We have to be given credit for taking some steps to address these issues.”