Dying for Change

Cowtown is “ground zero” in the fight to end bullying of gay teens
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Posted June 6, 2012 by Andrew Mclemore | Photos by Chase Martinez in News

Like most young people who attempt suicide, Caleb was sent to a psychiatric hospital for a week of monitoring after he’d recovered from his overdose of painkillers.

He was given anti-depressants, sleep medications, and counseling in a ward of about 10 other kids.

It was there that Caleb finally found the support he’d been looking for: All but one of his fellow patients were gay or lesbian.

“It helped me get out of my shell,” he said. “It made me feel like I wasn’t alone.”

Caleb’s story illustrates why anti-bullying measures must be about action and not merely policy, said Vann.

Until staffers receive training, expectations are made clear, and violators of school policy — whether students, faculty, or staff — are held accountable, the bullying of LGBT students will be allowed to continue, he said. And he blamed “political calculations” for keeping those reforms from being enacted.

“To ignore [the toll that bullying takes] because we don’t want to engage in politics is unfortunate,” he said.

With an issue like homosexuality, the politics may be impossible to escape.

The Republican-dominated Texas Legislature received widespread praise last year for passing an anti-bullying bill that expands the definition of bullying to include online harassment, allows staff training in prevention of bullying, requires school districts to adopt anti-bullying policies, and allows for the transfer of bullies to another campus.

It was one of at least seven anti-bullying bills introduced last year, most of which included specific protections for gay youth. The one that passed, however, did not.

“Sometimes you just settle for less, because that’s all you can get done,” said State Rep. Lon Burnam of Fort Worth, a co-author of the bill. “We’ve been on the defense on that issue ever since Republicans took over. The fact that we got it passed at all was significant.”

According to a 2010 poll funded by Equality Texas, which lobbies the legislature on LGBT issues, 79 percent of Texas voters support legislation that would provide direction to Texas teachers on how to protect all children from bullying, including gay teenagers and the children of gay and lesbian parents.

When the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network conducted a 2009 survey of more than 7,000 students across the country, the group found that sexual orientation and gender expression accounted for the highest rates of both verbal and physical harassment. Of the 510 respondents in Texas, nearly half reported physical harassment because of sexual orientation. That’s compared to 13 percent who said they were harassed on the basis of their religion, 12 percent because of their race or ethnicity, and 8 percent for a disability.

Some states have taken notice.

Colorado, Arkansas, and New York passed anti-bullying measures last year that require school districts to protect students from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Fourteen states now have such laws on the books.

On a national scale, the White House has been steadily applying pressure to create better protections for gay young people.

The issue will only heat up in coming months. As elections near, President Barack Obama’s support for same-sex marriage and Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s physical assault, in his high school days, on a gay teenager are sure to be part of the debate.

In March, the White House hosted the first-ever LGBT Conference on Safe Schools and Communities at the University of Texas at Arlington. Top government speakers including U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder spoke about the dire necessity of creating safe environments for gay students.

Though four Fort Worth counseling and student intervention staff members attended, not a single district administrator showed up.

“The White House was here in our own backyard, and they didn’t show up,” Vallarino said. “That speaks volumes.”

 ********

Lisa’s son came out of the closet when he was 11 — an unusually early age, according to gay adults that Lisa talked to.

So when James asked his mother, a Fort Worth teacher, if he could participate in the National Day of Silence (in which students across the country refuse to speak as a protest against the silencing of harassed LGBT kids), she agreed on the condition that he explain his actions ahead of time to each of his teachers.

One of those instructors, a teacher of the year, outed him in front of the class, telling him “to be quiet as he should be, because all gay people were going to hell anyway.” That was in 2008. The principal told Lisa she’d spoken with the teacher about his inappropriate behavior.

After that, James had to eat lunch alone. He was taunted by a group of boys, and his closest friend shunned him. His mother contacted the principal, and the students were told to stop bullying him.

“Of course, things escalated,” Lisa said.

Two boys promised to beat him up. They were suspended for three days.

Then he got to high school. Lisa hoped things would get better. They got worse.

James sank into depression and started talking about suicide. At one point, he was hospitalized –– his mother wouldn’t say for what.

“By that time, I was frantic,” she said.

In freshman math class, James’ peers repeatedly called him “faggot.” The teacher did nothing. Lisa talked to the principal, and James was moved to a PE class instead. A few days later, the lead bully showed up again. “It’s just amazing to me that they didn’t check to see that the kid that had bullied him was in the same class,” she said.

James tried to see a counselor, she said. It took five days to get an appointment, and when he gave her handwritten notes detailing the names and incidents of boys bullying him, she said she’d take care of it. The notes disappeared. The principal promised results.

Nothing happened.

James is still in a Fort Worth high school. His name and his mother’s name have been changed to protect his identity. It’s been five years since Lisa’s son came out, and she’s less than optimistic about the district’s shiny new commitment to creating a better environment for students like her son.

“Year after year of this is pretty discouraging. There is really no consequence to bullying,” she said. “You keep hearing ‘They’re just kids,’ or ‘Boys will be boys,’ or ‘It wasn’t malicious.’ Or they’ll assure me they’ll deal with it. They don’t.”

Burns has heard plenty of stories like that.

He became a national symbol for the movement to end LGBT bullying after a dramatic, tear-filled speech at an October 2010 council meeting, during which he described his own brush with suicide as a young gay student.

Burns still gets phone calls from students and parents complaining about bullying from other students and apathy from school staff. Most of the parents he’s talked to, regardless of their political and spiritual beliefs, want the district to teach students civility and respect, he said.

“They want the district to produce future adults who can function in the real world, in a society that’s fair-minded and treats people with dignity,” Burns said. “I see all of our kids losing out, the straight kids too. When you take any one segment of a society and ostracize them, it takes away from everyone else the ability to understand the diversity of the society we live in.”

If there’s one thing district officials and Fort Worth’s gay activists agree on, it’s this: Even if bullying is inevitable in one form or another, its tragic results don’t have to be.

According to Nelson, Herrera, and McGarry, possible solutions include:

• Approve anti-bullying policies that include protections for LGBT students.

• Train administrators and staff on how to respond to LGBT harassment.

• Inform all principals about the requirement under federal law to provide equal access for all students to student organizations, including gay-straight alliances.

• Enforce a policy that holds violators accountable.

The Fort Worth school board has already taken the first step.

As for the rest of it, Everest said the district is committed to creating a culture of “open-mindedness,” though she added that it won’t happen overnight.

“We have a huge task,” she said. “We are failing our kids if we don’t teach them the life skill of being able to share different opinions and hear different opinions respectfully.”

Until change comes, Lisa said, schools will remain “tough, lonely places” for gay and lesbian students like her son.

“It has to stop being promises, and it has to start being something that we can hold on to,” she said.


17 Comments


  1.  
    Churlish Behaviour

    The things that human beings do to one another in search of approval, inclusion and popularity are absolutely despicable.

    And these selfsame despicable bullies grow up to be disgusting, asinine Texas rednecks. They are everywhere in Fort Worth. There are too many to name, hide from, reconcile with, confront or change.

    The culture of Texas is broken, it is based on hate-filled conservative beliefs that refuse to tolerate anyone who isn’t white, conservative, Christian (or so they claim), privileged, pro-military and pro-gun.

    There is no hope.




  2.  
    betty.brink

    Excellent story Andrew. So glad you are reporting and writing for us. Fort Worth ISD has been lauded nationally for its “progressive” policies re LGBT students and teachers, but policies without training and enforcement are as worthless as the paper they are written on. These students and teachers deserve to have the anti-bullying and anti-discrimination policies that are on the books brought to life. These are our families, our friends, our children. We cannot afford to wait. During the black civil rights movement, the mantra was
    “justice delayed is justice denied.” It is no less true for our LGBT brothers and sisters.




  3.  
    FWISD teacher

    Excellent article! Being a FWISD teacher, I whole-heartedly agree there needs to specific training of ALL district employees on LGBT students and the life-threatening issues they face. I have sat through countless district trainings on all sorts of topics, this one needs to be a priority! How many more suicides or attempted suicides will it take before people recognize the severity of this issue? We need to hold the district accountable for actively enforcing their own policies, just as I am held accountable for teaching state-standards in my classroom!




  4.  
    Teacher

    “The board’s action “made a huge difference,” Vasquez said. “… We have to be given credit for taking some steps to address these issues.” What? What has happened to you Carlos? What are you thinking? You passed a policy but failed to ensure its enforcement. How does that help anyone? The Board continues to ignore those who cry out for help. You vilify and persecute those who come forward with complaints. You have lost touch with those who once looked with hope at the old Carlos Vasquez’s desire for reform. When you decided to run for office, you turned your back on the employees and students who needed you. Where were you when Sylvia Reyna removed Sharon Herrera from her position? When Reyna dismantled the program Herrera fought to build? And why is Reyna now refusing comment? Because the failure of the INOK Program is BY DESIGN. Katherine Everest (who herself allegedly lives in the closet) is completely ineffective and subservient to Reyna’s direction. Why? Because Herrera was effective, beginning to make a HUGE difference, and dared testify truthfully at the Palazzolo hearing (a legal and financial drain on FWISD which continues). Hundreds of students and teachers came to her with complaints. Herrera had to be stopped.
    Your handling of Blanca Salinas has been reprehensible. Where is your stand on the Dunbar Principal? The Dunbar teacher who locked the student in the closet? The student suicide at Heights? FWISD needs you to re-assert your leadership Carlos. You are “out” and can thus be a tremendous force for change – unlike the two Board members who remain hypocrites in the closet.




  5.  
    kvin.bacn

    Why does this have to be about gay students being bullied? If you stop bullying, you stop gay AND straight kids from being bullied. Kids get bullied for their lack of fashion, being poor, dirty hair, funky hair styles, being overweight, too skinny, being a Christian, Muslim, hating Obama, loving Obama, etc. It gets tiresome hearing about gays being bullied as if they are the only one enduring this problem. Just stop bullying altogether.




    •  
      Frustrated

      In our world today, when was the last time you heard on the news of a kid being bullied about wearing dirty clothes, being homeless, being too skinny, etc., attempting or committing suicide? When was one of those kids ever beaten mercilessly and left for dead on a fence? Or robbed, beaten and/or killed because they walked in a specific district of town? You are correct…bullying is bullying and it is an equal opportunity offender! I think we continue to hear about gay teens being bullied and committing suicide, because this is what is being reported. Just recently, before the movie “Bully” came out, we didn’t hear much about two straight pre-teens taking their own lives in OK! The father of a young victim of suicide, Ty Smalley, came to my school to speak to our students about his son’s tragedy. I never knew about his son, and I doubt not too many other people did either, until that moment. A couple of weeks later, I saw the movie and there he was; he had a story and so did his 11 year old son, Ty, who endured bullying for many years, before taking his own life. The hardest thing to hear in person and in the movie is when Mr. Smalley said “My son will always be 11 years old”! The dad is now going around telling others about “Stand for the Silent” a non-profit, organized by other students to fight bullying in our country. You hear about this now, because this man and these students were willing to step up and fight out loud! A senseless death is just that…a senseless death! I agree, If more people would report bullying; whether it is LGBTQ or straight, black or white, young or adult…anything…something just might be done to stop this insidious act of injustice and diabolical behavior. WE NEED MORE TRAINING IN OUR SCHOOLS!




  6.  
    truth

    Herrera helped me when I was suicidal. Thank God she is openly gay, otherwise I would not be here today. Many of our students look up to her because she is openly gay and understands this generation better than any board member or upper management employee. She truly serves our children, gay or straight, brown or black, poor or rich…she gets it. She served countless employees as well, degree or no degree, she is for the people- ALL PEOPLE! Just read her email quote- SHE WALKS HER TALK! She puts her job on the line to save others. She helped my daughter overcome the abuse by her FWISD teacher and a good teacher friend of mine that was being abused by her coworker just three months ago.




  7.  
    Marlin

    Well here we are still at it. The politicians are caving, children are dying, and we are not serving children. I am a gay teacher in an adjoining district that actually serves Fort Worth students. I have found and been active on this issue for over two years. When I was bullied and harrassed, NOTHING was done. When I asked my principal to stop bullying of a student, NOTHING was done. Texas schools DO NOT CARE if our children suffer. They are afraid of the First Baptist Church, and the local Catholc dioces. Let children suffer as long as we don’t have to step up and be called queer lovers.

    Thankfully we have a few brave souls that have out their jobs and lives at risk to protect these people. Sadly it isn’t the school board or the adminstration.




  8.  
    Marlin

    Well here we are still at it. The politicians are caving, children are dying, and we are not serving children. I am a gay teacher in an adjoining district that actually serves Fort Worth students. I have found and been active on this issue for over two years. When I was bullied and harrassed, NOTHING was done. When I asked my principal to stop bullying of a student, NOTHING was done. Texas schools DO NOT CARE if our children suffer. They are afraid of the First Baptist Church, and the local Catholc dioces. Let children suffer as long as we don’t have to step up and be called qu**r lovers.

    Thankfully we have a few brave souls that have out their jobs and lives at risk to protect these people. Sadly it isn’t the school board or the adminstration.




  9.  
    Frustrated

    Yes, here we are again! How many more stories of fallen students committing suicide, before something is seriously done to change this idiotic ass-backwards mentality at FWISD or even our country! I continue to find it disheartening that it appears we move three steps back, instead of foward! FWISD has always put words on paper to make the real issues seem like they are being addressed. But what they always fail to do is follow through when shit really hits the fan! Sure, come up with a fancy little glossy manual for INOK, along with the fancy little sayings by poets. I call it nothing but a little fancy piece of crap! And Katherin Everest is the creator of said crap! Wake up Dansby! If you continue to run your district in this manner, it won’t be long before we also see your name plastered on the news with the caption “Fired as Superintendent”! I laughed when I heard on Channel 5 that Arlington ISD was considered the “meanest district in FTW”! Really FTW??? Of course, our wonderful biased media would never say anything like that about FWISD, b/c they all protect the district…always have and always will! In my opinion, FWISD is by far the meanest…filled with bullies from the top down, who are self-deceptive…who believe that FWISD doesn’t have any issues of bullying, much less bullying of LGBTQ!

    So I ask the question. What is it really going to take to wake up this district to address the issues that plague our students and even our employees? Is this going to be like the city does, when they decide that too many fatalities on an intersection finally deserves a freaking stop light? Are we going to need a certain number of student deaths due to bullying, before this district decides to really do something about it and not just keep wasting money on bogus anti-bullying initiatives? Pee or get off the pot FWISD…people are going to die, if not already, if you continue to drag your feet! WE ARE NOT GOING AWAY!!! As long as we have the breath still in us…the fight for justice will remain, and our noses can still smell your rot from a mile away!




  10.  
    Teacher

    People have to understand that LGBT bulling has an element that is overseen that no other kind of bullying issue has. — A student who is bullied because he is or may appear LGBT will think VERY, VERY , VERY hard before approaching an adult with a complain, they know that they are going to get bible verses thrown at them, be ignored, or their parents be called before anything worthwhile for them is done. Any other king of bullying the student knows that they can go to any adult and the matter most likely will be taken care promptly and without any major issue or religious lecture. But A LOT individuals , uncluding administrators still don’t get it, adults in schools need to be educated about LGBT students so LGBT students can approach any adult with with their concerns as they can with any other bullying issue without hesitation. LGTQ bullying will be be considered to be at same level as any other kind of bullying ONLY when this is done and is properly implemented . Also, the LGBT community purchased the GLSEN “safe space kids” and were delivered to Ft. Worth ISD several months ago with the promisse that they were going to be disstributed… Either FT. Weekly got it wrong or someone is not telling the truth!!!




    •  
      Purveyor of truth

      FWWeekly didn’t get it wrong…FWISD and Kathryn E are liars! The packets were purchased and ready for distribution, but they made it seem like they hadn’t and that is all they were waiting on to implement them. It’s another way for them to control what happens and when it happens. It’s all smoke and mirrors!




  11.  
    Insider

    We cannot expect individuals on the Board and in Administration to be responsible enough to safeguard children and staff when they themselves fear personal discovery. Pass all the policies you want – it is a smoke screen. FWISD needs this program back under someone who is out and unaffraid – namely Sharon Herrera. The biggest problem is the Board who are nothing but a bunch of self-serving politicians whose biggest concern is getting a school named after them. They should be encouraging students and staff to come forward instead of trying to constantly cover-up and punish those who do. How else do these injustices continue? This is not the first scandal directly tied back to Sylvia Reyna and Katherine Everest. Dansby needs a Board he can work with. They all need to resign.




  12.  
    Teacher

    Dansby always blaming the Board (or someone else) for his inability or unwillingness to make sound decisions is getting old. It may have been Reyna (how is she still here?) who removed Sharon, but Dansby said he would reinstate her and then failed to do so. Most of us work in fear.




  13.  
    Questioning

    Why is this always end up being about Sharon Herrera? She is not all that you all think she is. Talk about self-serving. I don’t doubt her heart is inthe right place, but she likes the power and that is the only reason she liked her old position, so she can have the power to cross whoever she wanted and step on others on her way. DAnsby is never going to reinstate her in her old position. she has burned too many people, in cluding Dansby. She pretending she is working hard in student engagement becuase that is the only positiion this district will let her have, instead of firing her! She may have helped some people when she was in her previous position, but don’t be fooled, she did it to bring bigger people down to make herself look like a hero, which she is far from being. I for one am glad she is where she is where she doesnt have anymore power to screw with people. hopefully she will get tired soon and and leave the district or better, get fired or demoted again! If people only knew the real you Sharon herrera they woudn’t be singing your praises.




    •  
      Frustrated

      wow “Questioning” or should I say “Kathryn E”…your grammar is bad! You need to stick to counseling!




  14.  
    Answering

    It never ceases to amaze me – the lengths to which the power elite in FWISD will go to trash a person in order to preserve their own twisted house of cards. This is truly one ISD which should be dismantled from Board to Directors. This comment from “Questioning” was obviously from someone threatened by Herrera’s effectiveness – Reyna, Everest, or even more unethical – Kaufman or Barbara Griffin. Dansby would do well to look closely at those surrounding and advising him. Chapa is a direct conduit of information to Reyna and MJ. As Superintendent, Dansby will never be effective until he brings in his own people. Take another lesson from the new Super in DISD.





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