Advocates urge MCPS not to downplay harassment of LGBTQ students

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The PTA’s Montgomery County Council calls on county school officials to respond to incidents of harassment against LGBTQ students as aggressively and publicly as the district responds to those involving race or religion.

President Cynthia Simonson and Mark Eckstein, chair of the organization’s LGBTQ committee, said they have contacted public school officials in Montgomery County to urge the district to make it clear when reporting incidents that the LGBTQ community is being targeted.

Racist and homophobic graffiti was found spray-painted on October 3 at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda. The graffiti referred to white supremacy and included the phrase “LGBT people are unnatural,” according to MCPS.

County police are investigating the vandalism, which also occurred outside of school property.

An October 3 letter sent to the school community by Walter Johnson’s principal Jennifer Baker did not directly address graffiti targeting the LGBTQ community.

In her letter, Baker said she was “deeply troubled and disheartened” to learn of the vandalism which “included references to white supremacy and other hate speech.” The letter said that “these actions will not be tolerated” and that any student involved will be penalized in accordance with the MCPS Student Code of Conduct.

On social media, advocates called the school for not specifically mentioning the graffiti against the LGBTQ community. “Why didn’t MCPS and the WJHS principal also call out LGBTQ hate. In her letter to school, she called LGBTQ “another hate”. If you don’t list “LGBTQ,” then you “other” us, ”said an Instagram post from mcps_lgbtq, a group of parents, students and staff“ working to improve LGBTQ + experiences ”.

Baker admitted in an interview on Tuesday that his communication with the Walter Johnson community could have been more “in depth”.

But she noted that the school’s “follow-up” actions in recent days have been inclusive. There was a lesson for the students that dealt with hate speech directed against the LGBTQ community. Students were also asked to sign a pledge to “stand up” against hate.

Baker said she also met with leaders of various student groups on Monday, including the Gender and Sexuality Alliance, Minority Scholars Program and Hispanic Cultural Club to “talk about how we can come together as a community. school”.

“I felt we were in a good space,” Baker said. “They provided feedback on the responses and what they felt was needed and we have listened and we have heard and we will take their feedback.”

Simonson said Monday that MCPS officials suggested a meeting with representatives of MCCPTA to discuss the matter.

“When we talk about hate speech, everyone identifies something from their own experience,” she said. “So when you just say ‘hate speech’ there’s a whole bunch of different things. I think calling him what he is and making sure that we are clear about who is the target of this assault, maybe it would help the public conscience. “

Eckstein called out the district’s response to the graffiti, as well as the harassment suffered this fall by an eighth-grade transgender boy at Julius West Middle School in Rockville, saying that “institutional biases seem to lead MCPS to respond to LGBTQ hatred in a lesser extent. in relation to racial or religious hatred.

Julius West’s eighth-grade student and his parents, who wanted to be identified to protect their privacy, filed several complaints with the school for harassment that began on the first day of school.

According to the family, the student had just moved into his place in tech class on day one when the boy sitting in front of him turned around and called him a homophobic insult. “The kid just looked at me, said so, looked away,” said the teenager, who turned 14 last week, recently. “It was like the meanest, most horrible interaction I’ve had.”

The eighth grader said he later told his tech teacher about the incident. The teacher took “pretty quick action” confronting the other student, alerting the administrators, and moving the other student’s seat to another part of the classroom.

The incident was just one of many acts of harassment the eighth grader suffered in the first few weeks of school, according to his parents.

Two days later, while her parents were waiting for a call from school officials investigating the first incident, a deputy principal called them to tell them about another incident that had occurred on the school bus. A boy sitting next to the student had called him the same homophobic slurs the other student had used in the technology class.

“Honestly, I broke down in tears,” the boy’s mother said of the call. “I felt so helpless to do anything to prevent this kind of thing from happening to my son.”

Other incidents include students asking the eighth grader if he’s a boy or a girl, referring to his genitals and telling him he’s mentally ill, his parents said.

In an email, MCPS spokesperson Chris Cram wrote that Julius West manager Craig Staton and his team “have been very aware of this matter and approached it as a moment of teaching ”.

The staff “worked quickly and thoroughly to support the student who suffered verbal harassment,” Cram wrote. “They’ve met family, developed supports, and not only are following appropriate disciplinary processes for students who have made inappropriate comments, but they work hard to educate those students and really the whole school community.”

Staton did not respond to requests for comment.

Julius West is named as a ‘No Room for Hate’ school participating in the Anti-Defamation League initiative which calls for training, presentations and activities to teach students and staff how to prevent bias and bullying.

Like many other MCPS schools, Julius West also practices restorative justice, “an approach to building community, caring for oneself, and resolving conflict” that actively engages students in taking responsibility for their actions and resolving issues. problems, according to MCPS.

Eckstein and the student’s parents said school officials have been responsive, but the school needs to take a stronger stance against bullying and do more work to educate students and the school community.

The student’s parents said they told school administrators that a letter Staton sent to the school community after the first incidents did not address the exact nature of the slurs used against their son or the need to recall to students that there would be serious consequences for such incidents. .

They said school officials then took the issue more seriously in a newsletter and told the family they would take additional steps to raise awareness in the school community. Eckstein spoke to the school’s PTA on Tuesday evening as part of a presentation on LGBTQ issues.

After the most recent incidents, administrators moved the student’s locker to a “more guarded” location and told him that he could leave his classes earlier than other students, so that he did not encounter as much. of students in the hallway, his father said on Monday.

While they appreciate the school’s response, the parents said they would prefer their son not have to take steps to avoid bullying.

“They spent a lot of time telling us about it and I want them to spend more time talking about the problem to the community in general, to children and their parents, so that parents can talk to their children and maybe being we can reduce the incident rate rather than having to constantly play defense, ”said the father.

The eighth grader said he didn’t think the school could change its culture, especially because students didn’t take “No Room for Hate” presentations seriously.

“No matter how much confidence school gives me about my safety and the level of acceptance at school, there will always be another. [incident] it continues to prove them wrong, ”he said.


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