LGBT teen suicides continue — and so does harassment of Asher Brown’s parents

The It Gets Better Project project has helped a number of teens who are bullied in schools and churches. Legislation to stop bullying has passed in a number of states including Texas.

Amy and David Truong at Texas Capitol

But the bullying continues and so does teen suicide. Here are four gay teens who took their own lives in January. Others may have gone unreported as LGBT-related.

• Jan. 1 — Jeffrey Fehr, 18, hanged himself at his family’s home in Granite Bay, Calif.

• Jan. 11 — Eric James Borges, 19, an intern at The Trevor Project, committed suicide after being bullied, tormented and terrorized for most of his life. His religious-extremist parents did not to attend his memorial.

• Jan. 20 — Phillip Parker, 14, of Gorndonsville, Tenn. committed suicide. His parents said he was constantly bullied because he was gay.

• Jan. 29 — Rafael Morelos, 14, of Wenatchee, Wash., who was openly gay, hanged himself after constant bullying.

But the bullying doesn’t stop there. Dallas Voice reported in March 2011 that Asher Brown’s parents, Amy and David Truong, were being harassed for speaking out against the Cy-Fair Independent School District and pushing for anti-bullying legislation.

Asher was one of the teen’s whose suicide brought national attention to the issue. His parents lobbied Texas legislators and testified before the Senate Education Committee about the bullying Asher endured.

Fox News in Houston reports that the Truongs continue to be the victims of bullying and vandalism at their house. Watch the Fox video here.

—  David Taffet

On 1-year anniversary of Asher Brown’s death, his parents call for a moment of silence tonight

Asher Brown
Asher Brown

Today marks the one-year anniversary of Asher Brown’s death.

Asher, a gay 13-year-old from the Houston area, took his own life in response to bullying at school.

Asher’s parents, Amy and David Truong, have recorded a video calling for a moment of silence at 8 p.m. today in honor of Asher and other victims of bullying, as well as their families.

Watch the Truongs’ video and read a statement from Equality Texas below.

—  John Wright

Legislative session ends well for LGBT community

MISSION ACCOMPLISHED | Equality Texas Executive Director Dennis Coleman said the LGBT lobbying organization stayed persistent and reached its major goal in this legislative session. (David Taffet/Dallas Voice)

Although prospects were dim as session started, Equality Texas has achieved its top priority with passage of anti-bullying bill

JOHN WRIGHT | Online Editor
wright@dallasvoice.com

When the 82nd Texas Legislature convened in January, things weren’t looking good for the LGBT community.

Republicans had seized a supermajority in the House in November elections, and Equality Texas, the statewide LGBT advocacy group, had eliminated half its staff — including its legislative lobbyist — due to budget constraints.

Five months later, when the legislative session ends this coming Monday, Equality Texas will have defied the odds and achieved its No. 1 priority — passage of meaningful anti-bullying legislation.

On top of that, the group has seen committee hearings on more than a dozen bills it supported, and appears to have staved off several anti-LGBT measures, including one targeting transgender marriage and another aimed at eliminating gay resource centers on college campuses.

“I would give this a very high mark as far as a legislative session for us,” said Dennis Coleman, who was named executive director of Equality Texas just months before the session began.

“I would give it an ‘A’ considering where we thought we were going. I don’t think that anybody thought that we would make any kind of progress based upon last year’s elections, and I would say I was a little skeptical as well.

“We stayed persistent,” Coleman added. “We found allies to work with all across the board. Equality Texas became the expert on a lot of the bills that were out there, especially around the bullying bills.”

For Equality Texas, the session was highlighted by final passage this week of HB 1942, the bipartisan anti-bullying bill by Rep. Diane Patrick, R-Arlington, that now awaits Gov. Rick Perry’s signature. Passage of Patrick’s bill, a compromise measure that includes portions of several other anti-bullying bills, comes on the heels of the gay youth suicide crisis of last fall.

“It’s unfortunate that it took the suicide of children for people to really pay attention to what we knew about almost 15 years ago,” Coleman said. “For many people they think it just popped up, but this has been going on for at least three sessions.”

To help win passage of Patrick’s bill, Equality Texas enlisted people like Fort Worth City Councilman Joel Burns, as well as the parents of bullying victims including Asher Brown, the gay 13-year-old from the Houston area who took his own life last year.

“It was a promise I made to Asher the day that he died before his little body left this house,” Amy Truong, Asher’s mother, said this week in an Equality Texas press release marking final passage of HB 1942. “I told him that I would never stop fighting until we did something to change this.”

Coleman downplayed criticism that Patrick’s bill doesn’t include enumerated protections for LGBT youth. “I think by making it as broad as you can, you include everyone without excluding anyone,” Coleman said. “To say that LGBT students are not covered is wrong.”

Coleman added that although he doesn’t believe the absence of LGBT protections weakens the bill, “I definitely think we would not have gotten the broad bipartisan support had we continued trying to fight for everything we thought should have been in there.”

As of Thursday, Equality Texas was patiently awaiting final passage of a second bill it supports, a youth suicide prevention measure from Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston.

But the group’s work won’t end with the session on Monday. Dennis Coleman said he believes a special session is likely, which could provide an opportunity for defeated anti-LGBT measures to re-emerge. He added that the group has a very short window for fundraising prior to the 2012 election cycle.

“I don’t know what kind of vacation I’m going to be taking anytime soon,” Coleman said as he traveled from Austin to Dallas for a fundraiser on Wednesday afternoon. “We’re tired, but we’re happy with the results.”

—  John Wright

Asher’s parents respond to abuse allegations

Amy and David Truong

As we mentioned last week, David and Amy Truong have filed a federal lawsuit against the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District and Hamilton Middle School. The Truongs are the parents of Asher Brown, the 13-year-old who committed suicide in September after reportedly being bullied at school.

The Houston Chronicle noted in its report about the lawsuit that the Truong’s older son had been removed from the home by Child and Family Protective Services because of alleged abuse.

The Truongs believe the school district has been raising child abuse allegations since Asher’s death to deflect blame from school officials. The Truongs also questioned how the Houston Chronicle got a copy of the abuse allegations even before the case had gone to family court.

Estella Olguin, a spokeswoman for CFPS in the Houston area, said the agency doesn’t release case files. She said the reporter from the Houston Chronicle obtained a copy directly from the judge. A judge is allowed to release files in open investigations.

Olguin said CFPS normally investigates a home when there is a death of a child, especially if a suicide is involved. Her department cannot, however, investigate and charge a school if bullying was involved — even if negligence by school personnel is found.

CFPS also investigates when someone refers a case.

Olguin could not tell us whether someone referred the case after Asher’s death and if so, who it was. She also could not tell me whether it was referred or it was a routine investigation triggered by the suicide.

The Truongs believe the school district may have asked CFPS to open the investigation.

In their lawsuit, the Truongs accuse school district officials of publicly stating on several occasions that there was no evidence Asher was bullied. Evidence such as David Truong’s signed visitor sheets that show he met with school officials about the problem is missing and, the lawsuit alleges it was destroyed by the district.

David answered the abuse allegations in an email to us. We’ve posted the full text of his email below.

—  David Taffet

Asher Brown’s parents file federal lawsuit; CPS report raises questions about home environment

David and Amy Truong addressed members of the LGBT community who came from around Texas to lobby for anti-bullying laws on March 7. (David Taffet/Dallas Voice)

The parents of Asher Brown, a gay 13-year-old from the Houston area who took his own life last fall after being bullied by classmates, are suing Hamilton Middle School and the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District for allegedly failing to respond to their complaints. Brown’s parents, Amy and David Truong, announced the federal lawsuit on the steps of the Texas Capitol on Tuesday. From KHOU.com:

“If the bullies were held accountable for their actions, we wouldn’t be standing here right now,” said David Truong, Brown’s stepfather.

The lawsuit reveals details about their son being bullied over being gay and Buddhist.

It includes a claim that their son was kicked down two flights of stairs at school within a day of taking his life.

The lawsuit also claims that evidence of the family’s complaints was destroyed.

Cy-Fair ISD did not return phone calls requesting a comment about the lawsuit.

The Houston Chronicle reports that after Asher’s death, Texas Child Protective Services began investigating the Truongs’ care of Asher and his older brother, who had been hospitalized for mental illness a few weeks before Asher’s suicide.

CPS found that David Truong was a strict disciplinarian who forced the boys to kneel for hours at a time on a brick fireplace hearth, according to the Chronicle. Asher’s older brother told CPS officials that his stepfather once threatened the boys with guns and placed a gun in his mouth. Asher’s parents denied the CPS findings and said David Truong took the guns out to teach the boys about gun safety. They also say Asher’s home environment had nothing to with his death. CPS placed Asher’s older brother in foster care after his suicide.

Click here to download a copy of the Truongs’ lawsuit. Watch KHOU’s report below:

—  John Wright

COVER STORY: The aftermath of tragedy

STANDING UP TO BULLIES | David and Amy Truong address members of the LGBT community who came from around Texas to lobby for anti-bullying laws on March 7. (David Taffet/Dallas Voice)

Amy and David Truong honor the memory of their son, Asher Brown, by working to get anti-bullying legislation passed

DAVID TAFFET  |  Staff Writer
taffet@dallasvoice.com

Amy and David Truong joined about 350 people at the state Capitol in Austin on March 7 to talk to legislators about Asher’s Law. For the Truongs, passing the bill is personal. Asher Brown, who committed suicide in September after being bullied, was their son.

A number of people from around the state who had come to lobby thanked the Truongs for their support. Some shook hands. There were lots of hugs.

The couple shrugged off the thanks.

“We’re all in this together,” David told those he met.

Asher, 13, was a gay eighth-grader at Hamilton Middle School in the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District in the northwest corner of Houston. He was, his parents say, a target of constant bullying.

On Sept. 23 last year, Asher went into his father’s closet, retrieved the 9-mm Beretta David kept there, and shot himself. David found his son’s body lying in the closet when he got home from work.

Since then, life for the Truongs has been tough, to say the least.

The Cy-Fair school district blames Asher’s death on problems at home and denied that the family had contacted the school about bullying, and the Truongs have been victims of “a constant stream of harassment” ever since, David said.

EMOTIONAL MEETING | State Sen. Wendy Davis, who authored anti-bullying legislation that was heard in the State Education Committee this week, meets with Amy and David Truong on March 7. (Courtesy Equality Texas)

Every morning, David has to go out to pick up trash neighbors have dumped on the lawn and the beer bottles that have been thrown at the house.

Their house attracts gawkers and hecklers.

“People screaming and yelling from their windows as they drive by,” he said, and some rev their engines when passing the Truong house.

“Some even slow down, stare out their car windows and take several U-turns to gawk and stare at us if we are outside on the front lawn,” he said.

David rarely answers his phone anymore because most of the calls are harassing.

David took a few weeks off from work after Asher’s funeral but was having a hard time. Soon after returning, he was fired.

To avoid harassment in the neighborhood and school, they sent their other son to live with relatives.

But the most telling sign of how Asher’s death has affected this couple is that every time David or Amy mention Asher’s name, their eyes fill with tears.

A group from Youth First Texas was at the Capitol lobbying for anti-bullying legislation the same day as the Truongs. When Amy heard some of the stories of those teens, some of whom also attempted suicide, her shoulders slumped. She looked helpless.

Asher

While the school district blamed Asher’s suicide on problems at home, his mother described a loving son.

“My son was a warm and wonderful child,” said Amy. “He was smart and funny. He loved all of his pets and animals in general. He was well read. By the people who knew him most and accepted him for who he was, he would be your best friend.”

But Asher was bullied in school for two years.

He complained about it the first week of school in August 2008.

“They picked on him for being the new kid, not dressed in Abercrombie & Fitch, having a big head and big ears, his lisp, his chosen religion of Buddhism and their perception of him being gay because of his gentle demeanor and his love of choir,” his father said.

Bullies made jokes about anal sex when Asher would bend over to tie his shoe or ran slower than the rest of the class in gym, his father said.

David told Asher to report the abuse to his teachers, coaches and the school administrators, which he did.

“Amy and I would follow up with phone calls, visits, emails and our own handwritten notes when he would come back to us saying it hadn’t stopped,” he said.
Some of Asher’s classmates told the Truongs that they documented the harassment and bullying they witnessed Asher endure. They filled out their own “incident reports.”

David said that at home they always reinforced that they loved him unconditionally. When Asher came out to them, they told him they loved him no matter what.

Every night the family ate dinner together and talked. Asher seemed relieved just to have the chance to talk about what happened and seemed satisfied with his parents’ attempts to notify the school, David said.

Despite their denial after Asher’s death that the Truongs had ever contacted the school, David said administrators sounded concerned when they got through to someone.

“They told us, ‘We know about what happened to Asher,’” he said.

They always got the same message — when and if the school bothered to respond to their calls, he said.

School administrators told them, “We will do everything to take care of it and we assure you, everything is going to be okay.”

“They did not offer any suggestions,” David said, “But did continue to praise our efforts in working with them to help Asher.”

One even told them, “I wish other parents were as involved as you two are!”

The day before Asher killed himself was particularly bad.

“We did not see bruises on him the day before he died, but his behavior was out of the ordinary in that he did not join us in the family room as he would usually do,” David said. “Instead he chose to read quietly and keep to himself.”

But David said that Asher told him he had a terrible day without going into detail.

According to Asher’s classmates and their parents, bullies tripped him and he fell down a flight of stairs. When he got up and had barely regained his balance, they tripped him again and he fell down a second flight.

None of the assailants were charged with assault or disciplined by the school.

After his death, the school claimed that Asher, his parents, classmates, teachers nor anyone else ever made any reports of him being harassed, taunted or tormented by bullies.

David called these callous attempts to cover up and said it added to their grief and heartache.

The morning he died, Amy said she told Asher she loved him and to have a good day before she left for work. He said, “I love you, too.”

“I went to work and my son was fine,” Amy said. “I came home and he was dead. No one should ever have to come home to police tape around their house. And my son shouldn’t feel like it was the only thing he had left to do.”

“He died because he couldn’t take it anymore,” David said. “People harassed, persecuted, bullied him and no one gave a damn.”

But as much as they talked at home, David said Asher never spoke about suicide.

The school district

The school district continues to deny any blame.

David called administrators banding together to deny any knowledge of the bullying part of the “good old boy network” in the area.

And this isn’t the first time Cy-Fair has been in the news for bullying.

In October 2009, Jayron Martin, 16, was chased and attacked by a group of classmates who wanted to “beat the gay out” of him.

A group of eight boys surrounded him while a ninth attacked him with a metal pipe and beat him with his fists. Jayron was left with a concussion and numerous cuts.

A neighbor with a shotgun scared the boys away. Had he not intervened, Jayron may have been killed.

Jayron said he told the principal, an assistant principal and his bus driver that a group planned to attack him after school.

Students and others claiming to be from the school blamed Jayron for the attack. A number of comments with a variety of different stories were left on the Dallas Voice website under the story of the attack.

In that case, the main attacker was the only one arrested in the incident. He was charged with assault. Because it was handled in juvenile court, the records are sealed.

The school district denied liability since the attack happened off school property, but because of the national publicity, the school district had to do something. So they fired the bus driver. They investigated one assistant principal but did not discipline him or any school administrative staff.

But no one has been disciplined relating to the bullying incidents and ignored reports regarding Asher’s death.

David said, “No one has spoken to us and no further press releases have come from the school since it was revealed by the Houston Chronicle that the district spokeswoman, Kelly Durham, was the wife of Asher’s seventh-grade assistant principal, Alan Durham.”

The future

This week, the Truongs were back in Austin to testify for Sen. Wendy Davis’ anti-bullying bill before Senate Education Committee.

On their earlier visit to Austin, Amy said, “Children shouldn’t have to be tolerating this on any level. My son didn’t deserve it. None of the other children who go through this deserve it. It’s not a right of passage. It’s not boys being boys. This has gone way beyond that and people need to realize it.”

Amy works as an executive assistant and uses her time off from work to lobby for anti-bullying legislation. While not looking for a job, David devotes his time to that same goal.

He said they’d like to move but home prices have taken a much steeper dive in Houston than they have in Dallas. Their house is worth $40,000 less than when they bought it and they cannot afford to move.

And, David said, the suicide makes it much less sellable. Real estate agents would rather not touch a house that was the scene of a shooting.

“Maybe we can rent it out,” he said.

David said they’ve gotten very little sustained support beyond the LGBT community, families of Asher’s friends and their “wonderful and supportive family.”

“We received cards, emails and flowers from all over the country during the first week of the tragedy,” he said, adding that the family appreciated every prayer and every bit of support.

Now, the Truongs are focused on putting their lives back together with counseling and therapy and on keeping Asher’s memory alive with their commitment to help other LGBT youth by passing Asher’s Law and other anti-bullying legislation.

Dennis Coleman, executive director of Equality Texas, said that legislators must hear from their constituents as anti-bullying bills work their way through committee and onto the House and Senate floors. He said a phone call to a representative and senator was a good way to remember Asher.

The Truongs have been working closely with Equality Texas on the pending legislation and understand that despite the publicity about the suicides last fall, passing anti-bullying laws is an uphill battle.

But David repeated several times, “Together we will move mountains.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 25, 2011.

—  John Wright

Anti-bullying bill to be heard by Senate panel

Sen. Wendy Davis

The Senate Educate Committee will hold hearings on Tuesday, March 22 at 8:30 a.m. on several anti-bullying bills, including a measure authored by Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, that’s backed by Equality Texas.

Davis’ bill is the Senate companion to a bill by Rep. Mark Strama’s that was heard in committee a few weeks ago.

Chuck Smith, deputy director of Equality Texas, said the group is focusing on Davis’ and Strama’s bills because they’re the most comprehensive and have been carefully crafted over two years.

Testifying in support of Davis’ bill Tuesday will be David and Amy Truong, the parents of gay suicide victim Asher Brown. Also attending the committee hearing will be the parents of Montana Lance, who hung himself in the school nurse’s office in his elementary school in the Colony, and the parents of Jon Carmichael from Joshua. Jon was 13 when he committed suicide at home after school bullying. Montana was 9.

Senate committee hearings can be watched online here.

Friday’s Dallas Voice will feature a story about David and Amy Truong and how Asher’s suicide has changed their lives.

—  David Taffet

WATCH: Press conference in Austin with Asher Brown’s parents

Asher Brown’s parents, David and Amy Truong, are working to make sure other children in Texas are protected from bullying.

At the Capitol building in Austin on Monday, March 7, they joined Fort Worth Councilman Joel Burns and Equality Texas Executive Director Dennis Coleman to speak about bullying and then met privately with several key senators and representatives. Garnet Coleman announced that he renamed his bill Asher’s Law with the Truongs’ permission.

Asher’s bill would mandate the development of “a comprehensive suicide prevention program for implementation in public junior, middle and high schools,” provide training for teachers, counselors, nurses administrators and other staff who regularly interact with students and mandate a report to the legislature on implementation of the program.

About 350 people from around the state including a large number of straight allies lobbied legislators throughout the day.

Sorry for some of the shaky photography. I was photographing with one hand and video recording with the other.

—  David Taffet

Activists gather from across Texas to lobby for anti-bullying legislation and more

David and Amy Truong (standing, center) lobbied with 350 LGBT activists and allies from across the state in Austin

About 350 people gathered to lobby for anti-bullying legislation among other bills that would benefit the LGBT community. Among those at lobby day were David and Amy Truong, parents of Asher Brown who committed suicide in September, and Fort Worth City Councilman Joel Burns.

The day was organized by Equality Texas along with 58 partner organizations from across the state. From Dallas Youth First Texas, Resource Center Dallas, Hope for Peace and Justice and the North Texas GLBT Chamber of Commerce were among the participating organizations.

Not all of the partners were specifically LGBT groups. Atticus Circle is a group founded in 2004 as a place for straight allies to organize for LGBT family rights.

First United Methodist Church on Lavaca Street across from the Capitol hosted Equality Texas for breakfast, a lobby day training session and lunch.

At a press conference on the Capitol steps, Rep. Garnet Coleman of Houston announced that he refiled his anti-bullying bill as Asher’s Law. State Rep. Mike Villarreal of San Antonio spoke about his Freedom from Workplace Discrimination Act, which would ban discrimination in employment based on sexual orientation and gender identity or expression.

The Truongs spoke about stopping bullying. Amy Truong said that no parent should go to work in the morning and come home to find police tape around their house. Along with Burns, they met legislators who are key to moving the bills through the House and Senate.

—  David Taffet

Gay teen Asher Brown laid to rest in Houston

The Rev. Stephen Sprinkle
Cross-posted from Unfinished Lives

HOUSTON — Asher Brown’s uncle told a big gathering of mourners and family supporters on Saturday, Oct. 2 that school bullies “ripped him up and tore him down everyday.”

A crowd of hundreds blanketed a Houston park beside Moore Elementary School to express grief over the death by bullying of 13-year-old gay boy, Asher Brown.

Bright balloons floated in the air as the line of friends patiently waited to sign the memorial book and get a chance to speak to David and Amy Truong, Asher’s parents. His uncle, a Christian minister, MC’ed the memorial service.

”The bullies picked on my nephew because of the way he dressed, how he talked, and the fact he was small. He was a David among Goliaths,” Rev. Truong told the large crowd. ”But Asher’s heart was so big! His heart made him a giant.”

Asher’s school friends, the few who stood by him no matter what, were present and spoke. One of them said there was a “Bully Free Zone” sign at Hamilton Middle School where Asher faced torment every day for being different, for being gay, and for being vulnerable. His friend said that the sign meant nothing. Nothing was done by anyone to protect Asher, himself, or any other target of ridicule at Hamilton. The Truongs had repeatedly tried to get school officials to help their son, but the school basically ignored their calls and emails.

Initially, a spokesperson for the school district denied that any appeals had come to the school about Asher and the severe bullying he was facing there. Now the Cy-Fair Independent School District is acknowledging that “some communication” concerning Asher did indeed come from his parents.

The gay teen shot himself in his Dad’s closet on Sept. 23 after bullying became unendurable for him. When David Truong, Asher’s Dad, found Asher lying on the floor of his closet, he thought at first that his son had fallen asleep reading a book–and then he saw the blood.

Referring to Asher’s six friends who spoke at the outdoor memorial service, David Truong said, “These kids are the true heroes of this whole thing. They are speaking out, and we need to support them.”

Houston City Councilwoman Jolanda Jones told the crowd that she and Mayor Annise Parker are taking this senseless killing in Houston as a “call to action” for passage of a zero tolerance anti-bullying law that will be named “Asher’s Rule” as a fitting memorial to a good boy who just wanted to live his life–though bullies wouldn’t let him.

Many supporters from the LGBTQ community came to show their support for safe schools for all children, and to support Asher’s family.

Asher’s uncle declared that “gay and straight alike are perfect in God’s sight. God doesn’t make any mistakes.” What happened to his nephew was not going to be dismissed as simply a “gay issue.”

”This is a hate issue, and we are not going to rest until all children are safe from hate at school,” he said.

For more photos of the Asher Brown Memorial Service, click here.

Stephen V. Sprinkle is director of field education and supervised ministry, and sssociate professor of practical theology at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth.

—  John Wright