03/21/2013

SPLC demands Mississippi school district protect students from anti-gay bullying and harassment

The bullying and harassment began for Destin Holmes on the first day of class at Magnolia Junior High School – and it never let up.

Destin, who identifies as a lesbian, often wore baggy jeans, polo shirts and baseball caps to class at the school in Moss Point, Miss. She was simply being herself. Destin’s teachers and classmates made her miserable for it.

For the first three days she was enrolled at the Gulf Coast school, she was repeatedly referred to as “he” by teachers, even though she repeatedly told them that she was a “she.”

Throughout the school year, teachers and students called her “it,” “queer” and “he-she.” Teachers denied Destin access to the girls’ restroom. One teacher even refused to allow her to participate in a classroom activity where teams were divided by gender.

The teacher’s reason? Destin was “in between.”

It was part of a pattern of harassment of LGBT students that led the Southern Poverty Law Center to demand that the Moss Point School District take immediate action to end the pervasive anti-gay bullying and harassment of students, such as Destin, or face a federal lawsuit.

When Destin’s father talked to a principal about the harassment, he was told that “if she’s going to dress like a boy, she’s going to be treated like a boy.” The harassment took such a toll that Destin contemplated suicide. She finally left the school after a March 2012 meeting during which a principal told her, “I don’t want a dyke in this school.”

“I just wanted to be able to attend school and get a decent education,” said Destin, 16. “But being constantly tormented because I’m gay made going to school a nightmare. I had to leave.”

Destin is now home-schooled by her grandmother.

The SPLC’s demand, stated in a letter sent to district officials today, comes after students asked the organization to investigate rampant harassment within the district’s schools. The investigation found that students – and even faculty members – have regularly targeted LGBT students and those perceived as LGBT.

“Students face enough obstacles in school without also enduring violence and abuse for simply being different,” said Sam Wolfe, senior staff attorney for the SPLC’s LGBT Rights Project. “They are entitled by law to attend school in an environment where they are not singled out and tormented because of their sexual orientation or gender nonconformity.”

The letter notes that school officials “routinely ignore severe and pervasive anti-LGBT harassment.” School officials often blame students for the harassment they have experienced – even punishing them for defending themselves. Several LGBT students said school administrators told them to simply “suck it up” after they reported bullying.

The letter describes how the district’s anti-gay hostility violates the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution by singling out a group of students for “disfavored treatment based on their membership in an unpopular minority.” It also notes that the district is violating a state law that requires school authorities to protect students who may be perceived as disruptive when they are merely responding to harassment.

The SPLC has worked to ensure respectful school environments for all students, including LGBT children and teens, across the country. Last year, it reached a settlement agreement to address anti-LGBT bullying in Minnesota’s largest school district, the Anoka-Hennepin School District. Earlier this month, its Teaching Tolerance project released Best Practices: Creating an LGBT-inclusive School Climate, a guide to help school communities take effective action on behalf of LGBT students.

The SPLC also has produced a classroom documentary and teaching kit, Bullied: A Student, a School and a Case that Made History, which is available free of charge to every school that requests it.

“Bullying and harassment remains a serious problem in too many school communities across the South,” said Vanessa Carroll, senior staff attorney for the SPLC’s Mississippi office. “The Moss Point School District must take serious steps to change this toxic environment before more students are pushed out of school or hurt.”