Saturday, 19 November 2016

Gay Litchfield Park student seeks help from Surprise-based group for bullying issues

Many children are teased, but imagine being verbally harassed on a daily basis in middle school.
A Wigwam Creek Middle School student says that's what happened to him because he is gay. His classmates wrote gay slurs on his Facebook page. He was targeted in the cafeteria, on the playground and in class. He's afraid to ride the bus.

 bullying issues

The excelling student let his grades slip and after the torment was too much to handle, wrote a suicide note.

But instead of following through, he sought help. The middle-school student and his parents, who The Republic is not identifying to protect the child's identity, met with administrators and counselors. The bullies got detention, but things didn't get better, said the family.

That's when the student contacted Gays and Lesbians United against Discrimination, a Surprise-based organization founded by 16-year-old Caleb Laieski.

His mission is to make sure students get the protection "all students deserve," he said.
Half of all students admit they bullied someone in the past year, and about 47 percent say they were bullied, teased or taunted in a way that seriously upset them, according to a 2010 study by the Josephson Institute of Ethics.
About 85 percent of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students reported being harassed at school, according to a survey by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. School officials said there are several programs on campus to stop bullying, and they try to stop verbal and physical harassment.

The district superintendent is researching the possibility of a language to its policy specifically prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Reaching out to the school

Laieski said the middle-school boy sought him out on Facebook and asked for help on March 18 after the child was Cyber Bullied. Three days later, Laieski sent a letter on behalf of the student to top administrators at Litchfield Elementary School District and Wigwam Creek.

Laieski wrote that administrators are "failing to intervene" when the child is bullied and they "are not providing adequate discipline to deter or put an end to" the bullying.

He asked for the school and district to increase staff training, involve students in bullying prevention and change the district's anti-discrimination policy to specifically include sexual orientation and gender identity.

The school and district said administrators responded to the letter immediately. Wigwam counselor Cyndee Head said she spoke with the boy after the letter was sent and Superintendent Julianne Lein said the issue is resolved.

"We addressed it as soon as we received the e-mail. We did speak with the student and their parents," Lein said. "It was my understanding that the parents did not support the organization contacting the district. However, the disagreement between the two students, it occurred on Facebook and was resolved."

The boy's parents said they support the letter and organization.

"The day the letter went out is the day my son came out pretty much. Caleb has been a blessing in our lives and I am thankful that he reached out to my son," the mother said.
"If it wasn't for Caleb, I don't know where things would be. I think it's terrible that the administration says we don't support his organization."

School officials decline to comment on specifics, including action taken on the cyber-bullying incident, but Wigwam Creek Principal Dave Mayer said the school does not "condone cyber bullying, physical bullying, or verbal harassment."

The school teaches students about character and citizenship and provides several anti-bullying programs on campus, he said.

Bullying didn't stop

Mayer initially said the school officials didn't know about the student's bullying problems.

"We try to be proactive. We were unaware of what was even occurring," Mayer said. "So in the e-mail when he (Caleb Laieski) said it was happening numerous times and nothing was being done, that's totally inaccurate, because they (the family) never said a thing."

In a later interview, Mayer said the family talked to the advisors about bullying.

"They have dealt with issues on that. They talked with other kids involved in some of these incidents. They talked to other parents of the kids involved," he said. "I particularly, I haven't. But my staff has."

The boy's mother said the family has met with counselors and the assistant principal about the suicide note, declining grades and bullying.

The boy said he hoped the bullying would stop after Laieski sent the letter. But it hasn't. He said it's a daily struggle on campus.

Mayer said the school staff tries to be vigilant but needs students' help in stopping bullying at the 900-student campus.

Lein, the superintendent, said she will research changing the district's discrimination policy to specifically include sexual orientation and gender identity "and its appropriateness for elementary schools." Laeski said adding those specific protections is important.

"We're asking that they protect sexual orientation because as long as we have those protections on the books, then we can make sure that all students are safe under the book. Then it's a matter of intervention," he said.

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Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Surprise Teen is an Advocate for Gay Rights

Fifteen-year-old Caleb Laieski's summer days go something like this: Wake up. Sit in front of a Dell laptop and read dozens of e-mails. Give a virtual pep talk and a phone contact to a girl from Australia considering suicide. Provide a hotline number to a Valley teen unsure how to tell his parents he's gay.

Add to a list of politicians across the country who will soon receive information about discrimination against gays and lesbians. And, oh yeah, return yet another call from the media.

Laieski, of Surprise, isn't spending his summer hanging at the pool. The high-school student is a gay activist, working between classes and school breaks.

He co-founded a national anti-discrimination organization in 2008, when he was a middle-school student. It's now based out of his bedroom.

He has sent hundreds of e-mails full of statistics to legislators, local politicians and others, hoping to inspire policy changes favorable to the gay community. And he has dealt with what he dubbed harassment at Willow Canyon High School in Surprise.
"Everything I have gone through has inspired my activism," Laieski said.

Eager to raise awareness, he recently shared his experiences with reporters from MSNBC and other outlets interested in the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona's offer to represent him. Dysart officials should have tried to stop anti-gay slurs and abuse, Laieski said.

Dysart Unified School District officials said they can't comment on specific students but has policies to prevent harassment.

Dan Pochoda, legal director at the Arizona ACLU office, said he and Laieski hope to meet with the district to promote updates to school bullying policies and additional training for staff.

Laieski isn't waiting. He has been on the move since 2008. That year, he and a friend founded Gays and Lesbians United against Discrimination in reaction to votes barring gay marriage in Arizona, California and Florida.

Laieski, the group's executive director, now leads about 20 volunteers who hope to urge lawmakers to overturn policies and laws they believe discriminate against gays and lesbians. They also hope to build a homeless shelter.

Caleb Laieski said he will pursue non-profit status in coming weeks.


Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Teen takes on bias, bullies in Litchfield Elementary district

Merik Castro is by all appearances an average, floppy-haired, and thin-framed teen.
He dreams of living in New York and though he isn't sure what he'll study, he plans to go to college.

Merik, 13, goes to the Arizona Agribusiness and Equine Center, a charter high school in Avondale, where he says he can breathe a little easier, because for the first time since preschool he feels safe. Merik said he was bullied daily at Wigwam Creek Middle School which he attended until the seventh grade, when he skipped a grade because intimidation and harassment became too much to handle.

Stop Bullying

Merik said he was targeted because of his sexual orientation. He said he has never been ashamed or confused about it, but he didn't know how to tell his parents, or how his extended and more conservative family members would react.

Now he hopes to turn his experiences into a vehicle for change. On Tuesday, Merik will ask the Litchfield Elementary School District's governing board to change its policies concerning reports of discrimination and student grievances.

So far, his online petition has garnered 2,500 signatures in about two weeks. He's asked the board to:

-Specifically include protection against harassment based on actual and perceived sexual orientation and gender identity.

-Ensure harassment of gay students is treated as a separate category of prohibited conduct, not as a subset of sexual harassment.

-Clearly explain the complaint procedures for reporting harassment, how investigations of such allegations are to be handled by the district, and what district resources and remedies are available for victims of such harassment.

"I want the bullies to get disciplined. I don't just want them to be talked to. I want them to be taught that they need to stop," said Merik.

Current district policy states that students may file complaints when faced with discriminatory treatment on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, age, national origin or disability. It does not include specific language about sexual preference.

Although he is no longer bullied, Merik said he once considered killing himself because of the daily threats some of his classmates made.

"I was going to overdose on pills," said Merik, in a recent interview with The Arizona Republic.
The bullies yelled taunts that ranged from "girly," "fruity," and "gross" to much more cutting and derogatory gay insults. Merik said he has always found it easy to befriend mostly girls, which is why the taunting first began. Those jeers escalated to being shoved into lockers, kicked when he was confined to a wheelchair after a surgery, and assaulted.

Merik and his parents say the school did little to intervene, despite several reports of bullying, and that the district overstepped its authority and "outed" him as a homosexual to administrators and his parents. District officials deny the charge.

In an attempt for help, Merik wrote a suicide note last October and turned it in as a school assignment. He also contacted Caleb Laieski, a gay-rights advocate from Gays and Lesbians United against Discrimination, a Surprise-based organization. The advocate wrote to the district in March, urging them to provide a safe school environment and discipline the children responsible for harassment.

Merik and his family said the district mishandled the reports of bullying, didn't sufficiently punish bullies, didn't offer adequate resources when Merik expressed suicidal thoughts and suggested he leave the school to resolve the bullying issue. 

Ann Donahue, a public information officer for the district, said two students were given out-of-school suspension and one student was given in-school suspension after officials investigated the claims of bullying. Records show that on March 22 Dave Mayer, principal at Wigwam Creek, responded to Laieski's advocate letter.

"We are looking into the situation. We take the safety and well-being of all of our students very seriously, and do not condone bullying or harassment of any kind," said Mayer to the advocate. The district was unable to provide requested records of the bullying investigation by deadline.
The district conducts annual bullying surveys within its schools to determine what behaviors students are exposed to.

In spring 2011, 548 students at Wigwam Creek were polled. Of those, 101 students reported being bullied two to three times a month.

Survey shows boys and girls reported that more than 50 percent of the bullying was name-calling.

On Tuesday, the district governing board will vote on a new student violence/harassment/intimidation/bullying policy to comply with a new state law, House Bill 2415, which requires public-school districts to specify definitions of bullying and harassment, how students will be disciplined and availability of reporting forms for students, teachers and parents who see bullying or other types of harassment.

The new state policy increases accountability of teachers and administrators who witness bullying by requiring detailed written descriptions of incidents.

The state and subsequently the proposed district policy also require that school officials meet with involved students to review findings of the investigation, regardless of the outcome.
If approved, the policy specifically prohibits harassment based on sexual preference.
Donahue said the district will not specifically include a separate category for gay students, because all students are protected under the new policy.

"If someone is being bullied because of sexual orientation that is harassment period," said Chris Thomas, general counsel for the Arizona School Boards Association.
Thomas said all students will be equally protected under the new district policies, which must be implemented by the end of the school year.

"I think the main difference is that under House Bill 2415, educators have an affirmative responsibility. It goes so far as to say that students not directly involved can report. It is everybody's responsibility to eradicate bullying," said Thomas.