FWISD to update bullying policy

Director of counseling says officials did not realize sexual orientation didn’t include gender identity, expression, and applauds new bullying awareness campaign

Tammye Nash  |  Senior Report nash@dallasvoice.com

FORT WORTH — When the Dallas Independent School District was lauded recently for becoming the first school district in the state to approve an LGBT-inclusive anti-bullying policy, officials in the Fort Worth Independent School District reacted with consternation.
The Fort Worth District, officials said, had passed such a policy months before, in March.

But the problem, Kathryn Everest, director of guidance and counseling for the Fort Worth district, said this week, was that “We didn’t know what we didn’t know.”

And what school officials didn’t know was that the term “sexual orientation” does not include issues of gender identity and gender expression, Everest said.

“Our policy protects all students,” Everest said, adding that she initially believed simply saying “all students” would be adequate. But she said she understands the need for more specific wording after discussion with those in the community advocating for changes in the policy.

Everest said that she met Monday afternoon, Nov. 22, with gay Fort Worth Councilman Joel Burns and Jon Nelson of Fairness Fort Worth. Both men, she said, have pledged to help the district fine-tune the wording of its policies.

“We want to make it plain that everyone is included. Now that we have found out what we didn’t know — that sexual orientation doesn’t include gender identity and gender expression — we will make those changes. We’re not fighting it, and we’re not intimidated by it. We just didn’t know,” Everest said.

She added that the policy in question relates specifically to students. The district also has a mirror policy protecting faculty and staff members, and it, too, will be updated, Everest said.

“We want our policies to align with the city of Fort Worth’s policy,” she said. The Fort Worth City Council voted last year to amend its nondiscrimination ordinance, which already included protections based on sexual orientation, to include specific protections based on gender identity and gender expression.

Another point of confusion centered on the wording of Fort Worth’s anti-bullying policy itself. The policy defines bullying, gives examples and outlines the procedure for reporting incidences of bullying and for investigating those reports. But it does not enumerate specific groups protected under the policy, as the Dallas ISD policy does.

Everest explained this week that the Fort Worth ISD’s “Freedom from Bullying” policy is an extension of the district’s “Freedom from Discrimination, Harassment and Retaliation Policy, which reads:

“The District prohibits discrimination including harassment, against any student on the basis of race, color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, disability, or on any other basis prohibited by law, that adversely affects the student.”

Everest said FWISD officials now recognize that, technicalities aside, the bullying policy should also include that wording — with the addition of gender identity and gender expression — so that it is clear.

Although gender identity and gender expression were not among the protected categories listed, evidence of the district’s intention to provide protections based on those categories exists in the discrimination policy, under the category of examples:

“Examples of prohibited harassment  may include offensive or derogatory language directed at another person’s religious beliefs or practices, accent, skin color, gender identity or need for accommodation … .”

‘It’s not okay’

While the Fort Worth school district may be lagging behind the Dallas ISD in perfecting the wording of its nondiscrimination and anti-bullying policies, Fort Worth is several steps ahead of Dallas when it comes to it’s anti-bullying campaign, Everest said.

The district implemented the “It’s not okay” campaign at the beginning of the current school year, focusing each month on a different aspect of harassment. Topics are “bullying, cyberbullying, sexting, teen dating violence, suicidal thinking, sexual harassment, use of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs and gangs.

The campaign includes efforts to explain each topic and to promote the district’s procedures for reporting and investigating offenses. A primary component, Everest said, is the “Friends 4 Life” hotline that anyone can call to report specific incidents or concerns. Students discovered to be targets of bullying or harassment are paired with counselors who work with them and help them find other resources if necessary, Everest said.

She said students had input in designing the campaign, helping choose the topics and suggesting ways to address each one. The district also has designed posters on each topic to be displayed in schools, as well as billboards that are going up each month around the city.

“By the end of the school year, we will have billboards across the city addressing each one of these topics,” Everest said. “There is a kind of entrenched generational acceptance of certain kinds of harassment and bullying — the idea that it’s just what kids do, and you need to get over it and move on. That’s what we have to change. We have to say to the whole world that it’s not OK.

“And this [campaign] is not just a flash in the pan, not just a one-time thing,” Everest continued. Our goal is to make it an ongoing program, something that is deep and broad and addresses all the angles. That’s how you change the social norms. That’s how you stop the bullying.”

She added, “This is all a learning process for us. We are making corrections and improvements as we go along. We thought we were covering everything, and now that we know we didn’t, we will make the changes we need to make.

“Our goal is to make our entire educational community as safe as possible — our students, our faculty and our staff. And we will do what we need to do to make that happen.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 26, 2010.

—  Michael Stephens

Van Zandt County Republican wants Ten Commandments back in Texas classrooms

Rep. Dan Flynn

Tis the season for prefiling bills for the upcoming session of the Texas Legislature, and Van Republican Dan Flynn has filed a measure that would allow teachers in Texas public schools to post copies of The 10 Commandments on their classroom walls. (For those of you who don’t know, Van is a very small little town about 70 miles east Dallas on I-20. It is in Van Zandt County, for which Canton is the county seat. I worked there years and years ago as editor of the town’s weekly newspaper, The Van Progress.)

Flynn’s bill says that school board trustees may not stop copies of the commandments from being posted in “prominent” locations in classrooms, according to a story in the Sunday issue of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Flynn also says the measure is a “patriotic exercise” intended to teach students about history and principles.

(Funny, I see it as an unconstititutional effort to impose specific religious views.)

Flynn told the Star-Telegram:

“This is necessary to protect teachers who have the desire to establish that the country’s historical background is based on Judeo-Christian traditions. This might be a reassuring step to the people that we are wanting to maintain and hold on to those historical findings of how our country was founded. And anything that helps build the morals of our young people would be helpful. For too long, we’ve forsaken what our Judeo-Christian heritage has been. Our rights do come from God, not from government.”

Oh, and Flynn was apparently distressed that school officials are not allowed to publicly pray for students athletes before school sports events.

Of course, there have been numerous court cases involving the Ten Commandments on public property and in government buildings. And a in a lot of those cases, the courts have said it isn’t allowed. Although, as the Star-Telegram notes, there was a case just five years ago in which the Supreme Court said a granite monument with the Ten Commandments on the grounds of the Texas Capitol is not unconstitutional because it didn’t mean that Texas government officials were promoting religion.

Flynn said his bill has gotten support among conservatives, but acknowledges that if it passes the Legislature it is likely to face legal challenges.

—  admin

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

Harris County prosecutors want to know what led to the suicide of gay 13-year-old Asher Brown

This just in from The Associated Press:

HOUSTON — Prosecutors said Friday they will look into what led to the suicide of a 13-year-old Houston boy whose parents say was relentlessly bullied at his middle school for two years because of his religion and sexual orientation.

Asher Brown’s parents, who claim school officials ignored their pleas for help, said they hope “justice will be served” by the investigation by the Harris County District Attorney’s Office.

“Once they find out what’s been hidden, we would want the people responsible to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law,” said Brown’s stepfather, David Truong.

Read the full story here.

—  John Wright

Advocates push safe schools bill in wake of suicide

Parents of Houston teen who shot himself last week say school officials didn’t respond to repeated complaints, leading to 13-year-old being ‘bullied to death’

John Wright  |  Online Editor wright@dallasvoice.com

Asher Brown
Asher Brown

HOUSTON — The recent bullying-related suicide of a gay Texas teen highlights the need for comprehensive safe schools legislation protecting LGBTQ students, advocates said this week.

Asher Brown, a 13-year-old eighth-grader at Hamilton Middle School in northwest Harris County, fatally shot himself on Thursday, Sept. 23 after his parents said he was “bullied to death” over a period of 18 months for, among other things, being gay.

Asher’s parents allege that school officials failed to respond to their repeated complaints about the bullying — which included other students simulating gay sex acts on their son. Asher came out as gay to his stepfather the same day he took his own life by shooting himself in the head with a 9mm Baretta.

His suicide was one of four in recent weeks around the country tied to anti-gay bullying, prompting calls to action from advocacy groups and tentative plans for vigils in cities nationwide the weekend of Oct. 9-10.

“It’s devastating. It’s horrible,” said Chuck Smith, deputy director of Equality Texas, the statewide gay-rights group. “You don’t want to see any child hurt, much less lose their life, because of an unsafe school environment.”

Asher’s suicide is the first in recent memory in Texas that can be directly tied to anti-gay bullying, Smith said. However, a national survey in 2009 found that 90 percent of LGBT middle and high-school students had experienced harassment at school in the last year, while nearly two-thirds felt unsafe because of their sexual orientation.

A safe schools bill that includes sexual orientation and gender identity was introduced — but failed to pass — in each of the last two state legislative sessions.

“Part of the reason why the bill hasn’t passed is because it hasn’t risen to the level of being deemed legislation that we absolutely have to deal with,” Smith said.“If there is any silver lining to Asher Brown’s death, hopefully it raises awareness that please, let us deal with this before another child dies.”

Equality Texas this week called on members to contact legislators and urge them to support the safe schools bill sponsored by Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, in next year’s session. The group also noted that Asher’s suicide marked the second time in less than a year that officials in Houston’s Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District have been accused of failing to respond to complaints of anti-gay bullying until it was too late.

Last November, a freshman at Cy-Fair ISD’s Langham Creek High School was beaten with a metal pipe in what he said was an anti-gay attack. Jayron Martin, 16, said at the time that he had begged two principals and his bus driver to intervene prior to the attack, but they failed to do so.

Asher’s death was one of four this month in the U.S. that stemmed from anti-gay bullying and harassment in schools, according to media reports.

Seth Walsh, a gay 13-year-old from California, died in a hospital on Tuesday, Sept. 28 after hanging himself from a tree in his back yard several days earlier.Billy Lucas, a 15-year-old high school freshman, hung himself in his family’s barn in Greensburg, Ind., on Thursday, Sept. 9. And Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old freshman at Rutgers University, jumped off a bridge this week after his roommate secretly streamed on the Internet a live recording of him having sex with another man.

“These horrific stories of youth taking their own lives reflect on school bullying culture in this country,” said Charles Robbins, executive director of Trevor Project, a national organization focused on crisis intervention and suicide prevention among LGBTQ youth.

“To be clear, they do not point to a contagion of teen or youth suicide, but that the media, parents, teachers and friends are more in-tune to speaking up about the causes,” Robbins said. “We extend our deepest condolences to the family and friends affected by the loss of these wonderful individuals.”

Hayley Gorenberg, deputy legal director for Lambda Legal, the national LGBT civil rights group, also expressed condolences.

“But sympathy is not enough — we all have a responsibility to take action, and to keep working until all young people are safe and respected, no matter what their sexual orientation or gender identity,” Gorenberg said. “We must push for laws on the federal level and in every state that prohibit bullying and discrimination.

“We must hold people accountable, and use the courts when necessary. And most importantly, we must love and teach all our children to be their best selves and to respect and support others to do the same.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 01, 2010.

—  Michael Stephens

Query • 10.01.10

Have you or your children been bullied in school?

………………………….

Gary Shephard — “Yes. The school I attended in rural Florida put me through hell in 9th and 10th grade. I wound up back in Philadelphia the next year; it was such a relief.”

Latisha McDaniel — “Yeah, I think everyone got picked on in school but the difference now is that there is no escape like when I was a kid. The bullying stayed in the school.”

John S. Shore — “I was more than bullied my entire life. All the kids, bus drivers, coaches and teachers allowed and watched me get beat up. Let’s teach karate and peace.”

Ron Allen —  “The problem is the attitude that ‘It’s just part of growing up.’ When parents, teachers, school officials, bus drivers and others in authority have that attitude that’s what drives our gay and lesbian children to view suicide as the only solution to a daily existence that has become intolerable to them. Yes, I was bullied unmercifully as a child and a teenager in a small town in the South.”

…………………………

Have a suggestion for a question you’d like us to ask?  E-mail it to nash@dallasvoice.com.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 01, 2010.

—  Michael Stephens

HRC releases statement on Asher Brown’s suicide; bullied gay teen in California dies

Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese issued the following statement Wednesday morning on the suicide of Asher Brown, the 13-year-old from Houston who took his life after enduring months of anti-gay bullying at his middle school:

“We feel for Asher’s family during this sad time. This young man had a wonderful life ahead of him, but he was ‘bullied to death’ because he was gay. This tragedy was preventable. School officials must act when kids are tormented and bullied. All students deserve to be treated with dignity and respect which is why HRC urges school districts and state legislatures everywhere to implement enumerated anti-bullying policies and laws that that protect all students.”

Equality Texas has issued an action alert calling on people to contact their state legislators and urge them to pass safe schools legislation that protects LGBT youth. Also, Change.org has posted a petition addressed to officials in the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District.

Also, a gay 13-year-old in California has died after nine days on life support, after attempting suicide in response to years of anti-gay bullying. Seth Walsh, 13, who hung himself from a tree in his back yard on Sept. 19, died Tuesday afternoon. No charges have been filed.

—  John Wright

Does Asher Brown’s suicide indicate a pattern of ignoring anti-gay bullying in Houston district?

Asher Brown

Asher Brown’s suicide marks the second time in less than a year that officials in Houston’s Cypress-Fairbanks school district have been accused of failing to respond to complaints of anti-gay bullying until it was too late.

Brown, a 13-year-old eighth-grader at Cy-Fair ISD’s Hamilton Middle School, took his own life last Thursday, the same day he had come out to his stepfather as gay:

The 13-year-old’s parents said they had complained about the bullying to Hamilton Middle School officials during the past 18 months, but claimed their concerns fell on deaf ears.

David and Amy Truong said they made several visits to the school to complain about the harassment, and Amy Truong said she made numerous phone calls to the school that were never returned.

Last November, a freshman at Cy-Fair ISD’s Langham Creek High School was beaten with a metal pipe in what he said was an anti-gay attack. Jayron Martin, 16, said at the time that he had begged two principals and his bus driver to intervene before the attack, but they failed to do so.

Hours before the incident, Martin said a friend told him a group was planning to attack him. The teen said he talked with two administrators about his concerns. The administrators took a written statement from him, said Martin.

“I sat down in the cafeteria and I started writing the letter and so then I handed it to them and they said, ‘We are going to call y’all down and stuff like that,’” he said.

Martin said he was never called to the office, and the administrator didn’t call his mother.

Equality Texas, the statewide gay rights group, issued an action alert Tuesday calling on people to contact their legislators and urge them to pass safe schools legislation that protects LGBTQ youth. In particular, Equality Texas targeted members whose state representatives’ districts include Cy Fair ISD: HD 126, Patricia Harless; HD 130, Allen Fletcher; HD 132, Bill Callegari; HD 133, Kristi Thibaut; HD 135, Gary Elkins; and HD 138, Dwayne Bohac.

Also, Change.org has launched a petition addressed to Cy-Fair Superintendent David Anthony, spokeswoman Kelli Durham and the district as a whole. But if you’d like to give them a call instead of signing the petition, here’s a full list of district staff phone numbers.

UPDATE: Below is a follow-up story that aired Tuesday about Asher’s suicide and the district’s response:

—  John Wright

Anti-gay bullying drives Houston teen to suicide; parents say school officials ignored complaints

Asher Brown

A 13-year-old in Houston committed suicide last week in response to anti-gay bullying at school, The Houston Chronicle reports.

The parents of eighth-grader Asher Brown say he was “bullied to death” after officials at Hamilton Middle School ignored their complaints:

Brown, his family said, was “bullied to death” — picked on for his small size, his religion and because he did not wear designer clothes and shoes. Kids also accused him of being gay, some of them performing mock gay acts on him in his physical education class, his mother and stepfather said.

The 13-year-old’s parents said they had complained about the bullying to Hamilton Middle School officials during the past 18 months, but claimed their concerns fell on deaf ears.

David and Amy Truong said they made several visits to the school to complain about the harassment, and Amy Truong said she made numerous phone calls to the school that were never returned.

Asher Brown shot himself with his stepfather’s 9mm Beretta last Thursday. The Chronicle says Asher had come out as gay to his stepfather on the morning of his death. But KRIV-TV Channel 26 reports that Asher came out to his parents over the summer.

Unlike many states, Texas has no law that prohibits bullying and harassment on the basis of sexual orientation.

—  John Wright

A glimpse of the change to come: School officials yank trans teen’s homecoming king crown

The San Francisco Chronicle posted a story online today about Oakleigh Reed, a transgender 17-year-old at Mona Shores High School in Muskegon, Mich., who was voted homecoming king by his classmates after he launched a Facebook campaign for the crown. But then school officials yanked Oak’s crown, declaring that students can only choose a boy for homecoming kind, and Oak — as he is known to his friends — is not a boy.

Oak has been coming to terms with his gender identity for some time, and his classmates and teachers and family have apparently been coming to terms along with him. His teachers refer to Oak with male pronouns in class. The school allows him to wear a tuxedo when he marches with the band. And he has been given permission to wear the male cap and gown at graduation.

But because he is “still enrolled as a female” at the high school, Oak can’t be homecoming king, school officials declared.

Another homecoming king has already been crowned. But Oak’s classmates, angry that their votes were ignored, have taken to Facebook to protest with a page called “Oak is Our King.” And they are encouraging everyone to wear T-shirts bearing that slogan to school on Friday, Oct. 1. The Chronicle says that the ACLU is considering taking on the case.

Now, I figure there are two ways to look at this, and I guess when it comes right down to it, you can see it both ways at once. First of all — and this was my first reaction — is to be angry at school administrators who completely discounted the choice of the majority of the students who wanted to honor their friend Oak by naming him homecoming king. We could see it as just another example of the way LGBT people, especially LGBT youth, are mistreated by a bigoted society.

That’s all true, of course. But look again and you can see a very bright silver lining to this cloud: The fact that the students voted a transgender teen as homecoming king. If that’s not progress, what is?

There will come a day when the “old guard” — the ones that take away homecoming king crowns and refuse to letLGBT students take their same-gender dates to the prom and insist they dress according to outdated gender stereotypes — will be gone and this younger, more open-minded and accepting generation will be in charge. And maybe when that happens, the young people of that day will stand aghast at the idea that same-sex couples weren’t allowed to get married, that gays and lesbians couldn’t serve openly in the military, that transgenders were ridiculed just for trying to be themselves.

I’m not saying we should stop fighting for those things now and wait for the inevitable change. I  know I don’t have that much patience, and I am sure most of you don’t either.  But I do think we can take heart in knowing that change is coming. Whether the bigots like it or not.

—  admin