Cathedral of Hope Mid-Cities kicks off town hall series with bullying panel

Old Bedford School

Cathedral of Hope Mid-Cities meets at Old Bedford School in Bedford.

Cathedral of Hope Mid-Cities kicks off a monthly town hall series Wednesday with a discussion on bullying. The panel will include representatives from three local school districts.

Leading the discussion on how the community can come together to create a safer environment for children will be Fort Worth ISD student engagement program specialist Sharon Herrera, Hurst-Euless-Bedford ISD coordinator of guidance and counseling Carla Docken and Grapevine-Colleyville ISD crisis counselor Robin Davis.

The documentary Bully will also be screened. October is National Bullying Awareness Month.

The panel discussion is the first in a monthly town hall series called Journey Toward Justice scheduled through August 2014. The series will include a guest speaker or panel addressing a variety of topics including access to healthcare, human trafficking and modern day slavery, economic justice and the issue of childhood poverty, LGBT equality, religious and cultural freedom in the U.S., racial equality and minority rights, women’s rights and equality, capital punishment and prisoner rights, reproductive freedom, disability rights, and environmental justice and climate change.

“With the Journey to Justice program, we hope to examine the commonalities that are found among different people and marginalized groups and how, by joining together and aligning resources, we can all work together to be the catalyst for a paradigm shift in the larger community,” said Kristin Robertson, moderator of the leadership advisory team at Cathedral of Hope Mid-Cities.

Cathedral of Hope Mid-Cities is a financially independent parish church of Cathedral of Hope in Dallas and affiliated with United Church of Christ.

The discussion on bullying takes place on Sept. 11 at 7 p.m. The town hall takes place the second Wednesday of each month. Cathedral of Hope Mid-Cities meets at Old Bedford School, 2400 School Lane, Bedford. 817-354-HOPE.

—  David Taffet

Investigation clears gay Fort Worth teacher

Kristopher Franks set to return to work Friday after 4-day leave stemming from allegations of improper behavior

FWISD School board member Carlos Vasquez

Tammye Nash  |  Senior Editor
nash@dallasvoice.com

FORT WORTH — Gay Western Hills High School teacher Kristopher Franks, put on paid administrative leave on Monday, Sept. 26, following allegations of improper behavior, has been cleared of all allegations and was set to return to work today (Friday, Sept. 30).

Franks is the teacher who  became the target of ire from the religious right after he sent a student in his German 1 class to the principal’s office for saying in class that as a Christian he believed “homosexuality is wrong.” The school’s assistance principal then suspended the student, setting off a controversy that made headlines around the country.

That student, freshman Dakota Ary, and his mother enlisted the assistance of Liberty Counsel attorney Matt Krause in fighting the suspension on the grounds that Franks and the school had violated Ary’s right to freedom of speech.

District officials quickly reversed their decision, lifting the suspension.

But Steven Poole, deputy executive director for the United Educators Association of Texas, a teachers union, said Tuesday, Sept. 27, that the allegations leading to Franks being put on leave were unrelated to the incident with Ary.

Franks, who had not spoken to the press previously on the advice of his union representative, said Thursday afternoon that he had just met with Fort Worth Independent School District administrators, who told him the nearly weeklong investigation had determined that the allegations against him were unfounded. He did not elaborate on the substance of those allegations.

Franks also said administrators had given him the option of returning to teach at Western Hills High or transferring to another school in the district.

“I haven’t made up my mind yet what I’m going to do,” Franks told Dallas Voice by phone Thursday afternoon. “I’m going to go back to work tomorrow, and I will talk to my boss [the district’s world languages supervisor], and see what she says and decide what’s the best thing to ­do from there.”

FWISD Board of Trustees member Dr. Carlos Vasquez told Dallas Voice in a phone call Wednesday afternoon, Sept. 28, that any time allegations are made against a teacher, those allegations have to be investigated, and it is routine for the teacher in question to be placed on paid administrative leave.

Franks said Thursday that he was pleased with the outcome of the investigation, carried out by an independent investigator, and that interim FWISD Supt. Walter Dansby was “very nice” when they spoke.

“I think they did the right thing,” Franks said. “I can go back to work, which is great. But now I just have to figure out how to fix the damage this whole thing has done to my personal life.”

Franks said since the investigation is closed, he is no longer being represented by a union attorney. He has, instead, retained the services of attorney Stephen Gordon to “represent me on any aspects of this whole thing going forward.”

He also indicated that he and Gordon would be discussing what possible actions he might take against “those people who have lied and made false allegations against me.”

While Franks had previously declined to speak to the media, Daokta Ary, his mother and Krause as their attorney went immediately to the press, telling their side of the story in several TV interviews and saying Franks and the school had violated the student’s right to freedom of speech. The case quickly became a rallying point for the religious right.

Krause this week told Dallas Voice that he and his clients are satisfied with school officials’ decision to rescind the unexcused absences the suspension left on Ary’s record, but “we would still like for them [school officials] to completely vindicate him and say that he did nothing wrong. He should never have been written up for an infraction. He should never have been sent to the office, and he should never have been suspended.”

Ary said in  media interviews that he made the comment quietly to a classmate sitting next to him in response to a discussion going on in the class at the time.

Dakota Ary

But Franks told friends shortly after the incident that there was no discussion involving homosexuality at the time, and that Ary made the comment loudly while looking directly at Franks.

Franks also told friends that the comment was only the latest in an ongoing series of incidents in which Ary and a group of three of his friends have made anti-gay comments to and about him.

Franks told friends that the harassment by Ary and his friends began several weeks ago after Franks, who also teaches sociology, posted on the “World Wall” in his classroom a photo, taken from the German news magazine Stern, of two men kissing. The photo was ripped off the wall and torn in two at some point during Ary’s class, and Franks told friends he believes that Ary or one of his friends tore up the photo.

During a later sociology class students upset that the photo had been torn up replaced it with a hand-drawn picture, and another student then covered that picture with a page bearing a hand-written biblical scripture from Leviticus calling sex between two men an abomination.

Franks told friends that since that incident, Ary and his friends had continued to make derogatory and harassing comments.

Franks’ friends also said that the teacher, a Fulbright scholar, has been the target of anti-gay harassment for at least the last two years, including having hateful messages left in his classroom and, in one case, having his car vandalized.

FWISD teacher Martin Vann, spokesman for the group LGBTQ S.A.V.E.S. that was formed about a year ago to help protect students and teachers in the district from anti-gay discrimination and bullying, said that Franks told his version of the incident last week, before the current investigation was launched and Franks was required to sign a statement saying he would not discuss the incident with other teachers, administrators, parents or students. Vann said Franks denied getting angry and yelling at Ary, as Ary had said, and reiterated that Ary’s comments were not pertinent to any discussion in the class at the time.

Vann said Franks told him that another student had asked him what the German word for “Christian” was, and how, if he moved to Germany, he could find an English translation of the Bible. That’s when, Franks told Vann, Ary looked directly at him and said loudly that as a Christian, he believes homosexuality is wrong.

It was not, Franks told Vann, a simple statement of belief or opinion but rather an intentional effort to insult and harass the teacher that Ary perceived to be gay.

Krause this week again said that Ary did not direct his remark in class that day at Franks, and that Ary had nothing to do with tearing down the photo of the men kissing.

The attorney also said that Ary told him he did not know to whom Franks was referring when he talked about Ary’s “three friends.”

The Franks case comes in the wake of months of scandal over allegations by teachers that administrators routinely allowed some teachers and administrators to harass and bully students and other teachers, and that teachers who complained often faced retaliation.

Vasquez, who is openly gay, said Wednesday that he believed the Franks investigation would be fair, that he would watch the situation closely “to make sure all the proper procedures are followed,” and that he believed Dansby would handle the situation fairly.

“Considering all the problems we’ve had, I know he [Dansby] will be watching this closely,” Vasquez said.

Vasquez said it is the school district’s responsibility to make sure there is “no harassment in our schools, whether it’s from the teacher to the student, or student to student or even student to teacher. I know that happens, sometimes, too.

“There should be no harassment whatsoever in our schools,” Vasquez , himself a former teacher, said.

Fort Worth ISD has been credited with having one of the most comprehensive anti-bullying and anti-harassment policies in the state, having adopted individual policies within the last year to include prohibitions against harassment and bullying, including that based on sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression, for both teachers and students.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 30, 2011.

—  Michael Stephens

COVER STORY: Odd man OUT

PIONEERING PAIR | Carlos Vasquez became only the second openly gay elected official in Tarrant County history when he joined the Fort Worth school board in 2008. Fort Worth City Councilman Joel Burns was the first. (Andrea Grimes/Dallas Voice)

Carlos Vasquez, Texas’ only openly gay school board member, takes on the establishment in Fort Worth

ANDREA GRIMES | Contributing Writer
editor@dallasvoice.com

“In Fort Worth, we have a very strong downtown.”

When Fort Worth ISD trustee Carlos Vasquez says this, he’s not talking about the manicured sidewalks of Commerce Street or plentiful parking for night-lifers. He’s talking about a political establishment that doesn’t take kindly to challenges. Elected in 2008 to the district’s board of trustees, Vasquez has been a voice of dissent in a city that has notoriously favored those who fall in line, no questions asked.

“I have been a very strong supporter of students and employees, and not the establishment,” Vasquez told Dallas Voice over coffee last month. His record — and many, many critical editorials and opinion pieces from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram — certainly paints a picture of a trustee who feels little obligation to the status quo.

Vasquez unseated an incumbent to win North Fort Worth’s District 1 with 64 percent of the vote. He loudly, and sometimes passionately, criticized former Superintendent Melody Johnson, who resigned under pressure in May. He has questioned the safety of gas drilling close to schools. He has advocated bringing in a new legal firm to take over the district’s delinquent tax collections.

Vasquez also happens to be the only openly gay school board member in the state. It’s a significant distinction, but he’s gone largely unrecognized by the LGBT community in Texas — perhaps overshadowed by the likes of Fort Worth Councilman Joel Burns, Houston Mayor Annise Parker and Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez.

But even in a very red city in a very red county, Vasquez says his sexuality has been the least of his problems. Instead, he’s been criticized by the Star-Telegram for accusing school board President Ray Dickerson of bowing to big business in gas drilling matters, and of resorting to “antics” with regard to hiring that new legal firm.

He even says he once got a call from former Mayor Mike Moncrief telling him to “cool it” with the criticism. But Vasquez believes that the “Fort Worth way is not always the right way, and the Fort Worth way many, many times excludes people.”

One of Vasquez’s colleagues in the Tejano Democrats of North Texas, community activist Jodi Perry, calls Vasquez the “padrino,” or “godfather,” of education in Fort Worth.

Whether it’s keeping gas drilling away from schools or advocating for anti-bullying measures, Perry says Vasquez has never been a “one-issue person.” Constituents “don’t see him as a gay trustee,” she says, but as “Carlos, the champion for children.”

Inclusion is one of Vasquez’s passions, and as a 16-year veteran of the school district, where he’s worked as both a teacher and a principal, he’s made LGBT equality a staple of his tenure so far. Somehow, he has found time in between all his so-called “antics,” to help found an LGBT employees’ organization as well as help institute anti-bullying policies that include prohibitions against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity/expression, first for employees and, as of the last week in June, for students.

Elected just a few months after Councilman Burns, who made national news with his “It Gets Better” speech, Vasquez became the second openly gay public elected official to serve in Tarrant County. Burns, elected in December 2007, and Vasquez, elected in May 2008, have not yet worked closely together despite their shared interest in LGBT advocacy.

Vasquez says he’s “surprised that we’ve gotten away with having as many gay rights as we have for students, teachers, employees,” because of the conservative, Republican base in Fort Worth. But he believes that community building comes from inclusion. That’s a philosophy he’s been building on since childhood.

Growing up in a socioeconomically blighted area of Brownsville in South Texas, Vasquez found a way to bridge the gap between being a popular guy and a friend to kids on the margins. A student council member, yearbook editor and senior class favorite, Vasquez admits to growing up in a “pretty rough” neighborhood. Even so, he says, he’s lived both “a good life and a hard life” that helps him identify with many different groups of people. In fact, his intersectional identity as a Latino man, a gay man and a lifelong educator helps him “go from 99-cent tacos to fifty-dollar steaks and still be the same kind of guy.”

Still, he says, his critics have often asked him to pick one identity over the others — something he’s not willing to do. “I have many different identities,” says Vasquez, and while others may see those as being in conflict with each other, he believes they give him perspective.

Most recently, some members of the League of United Latin American Citizens in Fort Worth have criticized Vasquez’s support of interim Superintendent Walter Dansby, who is black. Vasquez believes Dansby’s 37 years with the district, despite the fact that he’s yet to take his superintendent certification test, means he’s the best man for the job, regardless of race. He was most recently the deputy superintendent. LULAC supporters have said they prefer Sylvia Reyna, the school district’s chief of administration, who is certified as a superintendent but who has only been with the district a year.

“We have to move beyond race,” says Vasquez, and “beyond diversity.” Most importantly, he believes, Fort Worth ISD needs “somebody who has ownership of our district.” He believes Dansby has that, and if it makes him unpopular with some in the Latino community, he says he doesn’t mind, because he’s being honest.

In keeping with his reputation for speaking his mind, Vasquez says that in-fighting in minority communities holds everyone back. In fact, he says, “I think I’ve had more bullying behavior in our own [LGBT] community than I’ve had outside.” He remembers a time when he first came to North Texas 20 years ago when he’d head to a gay bar and find that “everyone was white and pretty and skinny.”

Today, he says, “I see a lot of different faces.” He says that comes from “better communication.” To that end, says Vasquez, he’s willing to take the lead. “If you’re not going to say ‘hi’ to me, I’ll say ‘hi’ to you.”

If his go-getter attitude ruffles some feathers, Vasquez doesn’t mind.

“I feel pretty good, even though the Star-Telegram and downtown establishment aren’t happy, the community at large is.” Vasquez says he gets a lot of “praise” and “kudos” from his constituents, and “ultimately, that’s what it’s all about.”

—  John Wright