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. 

Location: Alexandria, VA, USA


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