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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Gay Teen Tormented by Fellow Students--and Teacher

Luke Herbert
Luke Herbert
By Kilian Melloy -

An openly gay 15-year-old Florida student says that he has been targeted for harassment and physical violence--with some of the taunting he’s had to endure allegedly being at the hands of one his teachers.

A March 24 article at Politicus USA says reports that the local political climate in Flagler County, where the student Luke Herbert attended high school in the Flagler County School District, is intensely anti-gay. "The U.S. Congressman for this district, John L. Mica, has voted against every single gay rights measure ever presented to him for a vote," the article noted. "The KKK has distributed hate literature in the county, telling persons ’qualified’ to apply for KKK membership that they will help ’stop the moral destruction of our culture by homosexuals.’

"Luke reports he has never heard any adult in the Flagler County Schools say the least positive thing about gay people," the article added.

A Feb. 24 article posted by Central Florida News 13 reported that the anti-gay harassment directed at Herbert is not only the work of fellow students: At least one teacher, shop instructor Floyd Binkley, has also allegedly subjected the young man to anti-gay taunts.

"He stood in front of the class and said ’you can’t put Mountain Dew or Pepsi in the same fridge or they’ll turn gay,’ " Herbert told the media. On another occasion, "He came over to me and I was like, ’Hi.’ He said hi, like he was imitating me or mocking me," the teen related. In a discussion of grades that members of the class would be receiving, Binkley announced that everyone would be awarded an A except for Herbert, who was going to be given an F, Politicus said.

Such instances of anti-gay abuse by school staff are not unknown. In 2009, allegations of systematic harassment of a male student by Diane Cleveland and Walter Filson--high school teachers for Minnesota’s largest school district, Anoka-Hennepin--led to an investigation by the state’s Dept. of Human Rights. The investigation found that the rights of student Alex Merritt, had been violated.

The teachers reportedly mocked Merritt for being gay, although Merritt says he is heterosexual. Merritt finally transferred to, and graduated from, a different school; both Cleveland and Filson continued with their teaching duties. The school district denied any wrongdoing, but settled with Merritt’s family for $25,000. Cleveland was given a two-day suspension, but after one day called in sick, missing the rest of the week.

Among other allegations, Cleveland reportedly remarked that Merritt had a "thing for older men" when the student handed in a report about Benjamin Franklin, and joked during a screening of a movie in which a bathing suit scene took place that the sight of a scantily clad young woman on screen would not mean anything to the young man, adding that "maybe if it was a guy" on screen the scene would be a cause for concern.

Filson reportedly told students searching for participants for a fashion show to "Take [Merritt] because he enjoys wearing women’s clothes."

The executive director of the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN), Eliza Byard, spoke out against the teachers’ alleged harassment of Merritt.

"That the school allegedly allowed harassment by students to continue even after it was made aware of the teachers’ behavior is unthinkable," Byard stated.

Added Byard, "Schools have a legal obligation to make sure their students have access to an education, and ignoring or encouraging anti-gay behavior deprives students of their right to an education."

Noted a GLSEN press release on the story, "Homophobic comments by teachers are, sadly, quite common."

"Nearly two-thirds (63%) of LGBT students said they had heard such remarks from teachers or other school staff, according to GLSEN’s 2007 National School Climate Survey on the experiences of LGBT students in school," the release continued.

The release reported that, "A Minnesota research brief released in June using data from the National School Climate Survey found that 87% of Minnesota LGBT students experienced verbal harassment in school because of their sexual orientation, 41% experienced physical harassment and 14% experienced physical assault."

Luke Herbert himself reportedly suffered just such physical violence in while still in middle school, when a female classmate persistently harassed, and eventually assaulted, him, throwing a soft drink can at his head and attempting to wrest a book bag out of his grasp. A passing motorist interrupted her attack, the Politicus USA article said.

Escalating Attacks

But that was only a prelude of things to come. Since entering high school, Herbert said, the abuse to which he has been subjected has escalated to "a whole different level." Herbert started classes at Flagler Palm Coast High School last August; from the start, he told Politicus USA, he was shunned and denigrated with anti-gay slurs, sometimes in front of school personnel who did nothing to intervene, as happened in science class when Herbert was targeted for bias-based bullying and the teacher allegedly did nothing to stop it. The Politicus article characterized the bully as "stalking" Herbert, issuing threats verbally and online. The bullying continued until the day when the taunts turned physical and the bully reportedly assaulted Herbert.

"He came out of nowhere and shoved me down onto the cement," Herbert told Politicus. "Pretty much, I blacked out; my head had hit the ground." A member of the staff intervened, but the bully followed up by sending a message over Thanksgiving break.

"Ha ha ha! How are you feeling?" the message read.

The assailant received a ten-day suspension and Herbert was given assurances that his attacker would be placed in another classroom. When the assailant returned, however, he resumed his old place in Herbert’s science class.

The harassment by students and staff extended to the bus service. "They wouldn’t make room for me in any of the seats," Herbert told Politicus, "and the bus isn’t allowed to move until everybody is sitting down.

"So I’d be standing there, and everybody would be making fun of me. The driver knew that was going on. That was another reason I didn’t want to get up in the morning." Herbert’s academic work suffered; eventually, he dropped out of the school.

According to GLSEN, gay youths are more prone to truancy and dropping out of school. In many cases, gay teens avoid school or drop out due to fear for their physical safety.

Increasingly, schools that permit bullying to continue--and even ignore bullying by the staff--are met with civil action, resulting in school districts--often cash-starved to begin with--paying out for settlements. The settlement negotiated by the ACLU on Herbert’s behalf was, the Politicus article alleged, "inadequate:"

"The school, for instance, does not have specific LGBT-related wording in its anti-bullying policies," Politicus noted. "The School Board would have to approve such wording. The ACLU, as happened, settled for the district ’recommending’ to the School Board the adding of protections for ’sexual orientation’ and "gender identity or expression" to the Student Code of Conduct and the school district’s bullying and harassment policy. There is no guarantee that the Board will add those protections. And, should it decide not to add them, no penalty will be imposed on it."

Meantime, Herbert, who has been driven from a public program of education by anti-gay harassment, has had to resort to online education.

"I asked him the following question," the author of the Politicus article, Scott Rose, wrote. "If Flagler Palm Coast High School were a totally safe and accepting environment for you today, would you prefer going there over studying through ’Virtual School’?

"Luke’s ACLU attorney did not give him space to answer that question. She jumped in immediately and said ’Luke fell behind in school, and we are happy that the school worked with us to help him get caught up, so that hopefully, he can start tenth grade on time next year.’ "

Rose reported that the ACLU seemed to be hastily interceding in a number of cases when the reporter attempted to ask questions that were evidently of a sensitive nature, such as the name of the science class bully or whether Herbert was personally satisfied with the settlement the ACLU had brokered on his behalf.

The ACLU has been active in protecting the rights of LGBT youths, generating headlines last year for defending Constance McMillan, a high school lesbian who was denied permission to escort her girlfriend to the school prom.

A federal lawsuit brought on her behalf by the ACLU resulted in the cancellation of the prom--and the scheduling of an alternate "formal dance" to which McMillan was not invited. Instead, McMillan and a handful of other students were shunted to what some have dubbed a "fake prom," while almost all of the teen’s other classmates attended the formal event elsewhere.

But Politicus was harsh in its criticism of the ACLU, with a separate, March 27 article on the story declaring that the civil rights organization was comporting itself "disgracefully" in this instance.

"Had there been any actual legal case involved, a client might be talking with another attorney about bringing a legal malpractice case against the ACLU," Rose, who also authored the second article, wrote. "The ACLU.... is able to use Luke’s case to attract donations for itself, while Luke will remain entirely uncompensated." Rose went on to say, "That no legal action was initiated is very curious. Luke is a victim of extremely serious crimes. His future . . . (his emotional well-being, his education, his college-readiness, and his economic prospects) .. . has been placed in jeopardy by these crimes. Yet the ACLU is complicit in allowing Flagler County Schools to mischaracterize, minimize and in some cases even to deny the details and severity of what Luke has suffered."

Rose went on to note that a suit and momentary settlement for Herbert would have entailed a transfer of taxpayer dollars from the school system to the bullying victim the system did little to protect, and speculated that a wish not to "alienate its Florida donors" might account for the manner in which the ACLU handled the case. Rose opined that the result was "an appearance that the ACLU could have a financial disincentive about obtaining money for Luke."

"I sort of regret being gay, because it has brought me a lot of problems," Herbert told Politicus. "Not that I have a choice."

Kilian Melloy reviews media, conducts interviews, and writes commentary for EDGEBoston, where he also serves as Assistant Arts Editor.

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