Thursday, March 21, 2013

Southern Poverty Law Center Says Moss Point Mississippi Schools Ignore Anti-Gay Climate Created By Staff And Students

In Mississippi, Destin Holmes, a 16-year-old lesbian, said she was sitting in her Magnolia Junior High math class last year when she experienced one of her worst cases of bullying, and it was initiated by the teacher. The teacher had divided the class into 2 teams -- boys versus girls -- for a trivia game, Holmes said, but she called on the tomboy-looking teen to sit alone in the middle. "She told me since she didn't know what I was, I should be on a team of my own," Holmes said during a press conference organized by the Southern Poverty Law Center on Thursday morning. The SPLC has now delivered a demand letter to the Moss Point School District asking for relief from anti-gay bullying and harassment. Standing outside Magnolia Junior High School, SPLC attorney Sam Wolfe said a student-requested investigation revealed a pervasive anti-gay environment in the district that is propagated by students, teachers and even administrators. Students and staff have regularly targeted lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students as well as students perceived as LGBT, he said. "Students face enough obstacles in school without also enduring violence and abuse for simply being different," Wolfe said. "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 district should immediately develop a plan to correct the issue, he said, or face a federal lawsuit. Holmes (who attended the junior high for one semester during the 2011-2012 school year) said she was forced to leave the school after being incessantly tormented by peers and faculty members. She sought help from her principal, she said, but the principal told her, "I don't want a dyke in this school." For the first 3 days of school, she was repeatedly referred to as "he" by teachers even though she told them she was a "she." Holmes said teachers and students called her "it," "queer," "freak," "alien," "dyke" and "he-she," and teachers denied her access to the girls' restroom. "They don't even know me," Holmes, who is now homeschooled, said during the media event. The demand letter issued Thursday said that Moss Point school officials "routinely ignore severe and pervasive anti-LGBT harassment" and often blame the victims for the harassment. Several LGBT students told the SPLC that school administrators told them to simply "suck it up" after they reported bullying. Holmes said the bullying made her withdraw and even feign sickness to avoid school. "I loved being with friends and going to school before I was being bullied," she said. "This isn't right, and it isn't fair." Jennifer Holmes, Destin's grandmother, said the family tried to make the school address the harassment, but the administrators "showed no sympathy" and the school board ignored phone calls and written requests for meetings. "It's frustrating to watch a child suffer and not be able to help her," the grandmother said, noting Destin was "living a nightmare." Wolfe said the SPLC hopes the district will work with them to create a more tolerant environment for LGBT students. "All students have a right to be treated with dignity and respect," he said. Moss Point School District school board President Clifton Magee said Thursday morning that the school would release an official statement on the issue later today.

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