Stories are everywhere about kids getting bullied by other kids on the playground. But what is the best course of action when the target of the taunting is a teacher?
Lennox Middle School history teacher Robert Collins is openly gay and says he is fed up with years of anti-gay slurs.
Usually, he says, it happens as he’s walking past a group of boys, only to hear a voice in the pack calling him a “fag,” or worse. On at least one occasion, he says, the incident felt to him like a physical threat.
Last Tuesday, Collins and a contingent of teachers brought their concerns to the Lennox school board. They charge that the district – which has historically been an early adopter of anti-bullying curriculum – has been largely silent when it comes to harassment of gay students and teachers.
Specifically, they are asking for more teacher training on how to address anti- gay bullying at not just the middle school, but also the five elementary schools and the charter high school. They say that students, too, have been the targets of torment.
“I venture to say that if the complainant were a different protected class — perhaps a woman being sexually harassed, an African-American being racially targeted or a disabled person being mocked — the district would take on the issue more seriously,” said Tamara Premsriath, co- human rights chair of the Lennox teachers union, speaking to the board on Collins’ behalf.
Lennox officials say they are constrained by confidentiality laws from publicly discussing the specific case. They say that Tuesday night’s meeting triggered an internal investigation to examine the most recent claims made by Collins, who has filed 20 complaints against the district over the years.
On a broader note, the Lennox controversy raises the question of how middle schools — which cater to an impressionable age group — should address matters pertaining to gay rights. It also brings into focus a challenging question for gay teachers of younger students: Is it a good idea to “come out” to them?
Situated beneath the flight path of the Los Angeles International Airport, the K-8 Lennox school system is considered an inner-city district. The vast majority of the students at its seven schools are Latino and qualify for free or reduced- price lunch. Schools within the district have long been the target of break-ins, and the mile- by-mile unincorporated area has a history of gang violence.
For all of the hardships of its students, though, the Lennox district has a reputation for taking a proactive approach to confronting issues of discipline and bullying.
In the early 2000s, it was a pioneer in adopting the “character counts” curriculum that stresses a handful of ethical values such as trustworthiness, respect, responsibility and fairness. To this day, Lennox is widely considered a model “character counts” district.
In 2008-09, it purchased an anti-bullying curriculum, called Olweus, meant to permeate every classroom of the school. The district also celebrates a “no name calling” week, which is advertised in newsletters and on school marquees.
“I’d like to think that we’re very forward-thinking in investing time towards the anti-bullying efforts,” said Cesar Morales, the district’s director of personnel.
But on the matter of gay harassment, the teachers union charges that it wasn’t until Collins filed multiple complaints that the district got around to addressing the issue. This month, for the first time, the school brought the gay-rights organization GLIDE (Gays and Lesbians Initiating Dialogue for Equity) to give presentations to students about anti-gay bullying. GLIDE also has provided training sessions for the school’s teachers.
Judy Chiasson, a founder of GLIDE who participated in the Lennox training, praised the district.
“Lennox was wonderful,” she said. “They wanted to promote a school environment where people felt safe and respected. This really reflects the leadership. … The way to judge the school is not what happened, but how they respond to it.”
Collins and the teachers union say that while the presentations were a good start, they’re not enough.
“We haven’t done any training at the elementary or high schools,” Collins said. “That’s really what we’re asking for, is training for all teachers.”
At the meeting, he told the board that he may file a civil rights lawsuit. Collins charges that the district is not complying with Assembly Bill 537, which protects California’s public students and school employees against discrimination and harassment. In 2000, sexual orientation and gender identity were added to the existing nondiscrimination policy.
“I believe our complaint system is a complete – I will use the word – joke,” he told the board.
Collins, a man of slightly above average height and thinning gray hair, has been a teacher at Lennox Middle School for more than 20 years. He’s been out of the closet for 10 or 15 years. He typically tells his students about his sexual orientation on the first day of school.
“I say, `In our classroom, we are going to respect everybody, regardless of race, gender, religion or sexual orientation. I want you to know that I’m gay, and we need to respect gay people at our school, too.”‘
Collins, who is on medical leave, said that in a typical year he is the recipient of 15 gay slurs from students. He added that in only one case has the harassment been from one of his own students.
Although Collins and the union are making specific demands of the district, the nature of his complaint centers every bit as much on a general feeling that his superiors don’t take him seriously.
In the early years, he said, administrators were genuinely puzzled by his complaints, saying “boys will be boys,” or that they themselves used to play games like “smear the queer.” Now, he said, even though the school has adopted some programs in response to his complaints, he believes school officials treat him like a nuisance, or even an enemy.
“My principal (Debra Johnson), she’ll talk over me, roll her eyes at me, or just stare at me,” he said. “Sometimes she just stops talking completely.”
Collins went even further in his comments to the Lennox school board, describing her response to his complaints as “hostile.”
Johnson did not return a call requesting a comment for this story.
Collins said that the harassment usually comes in the form of insults hurled in the halls as he walks past. But occasionally, a student will start a rumor, or say vile things about what Collins does with his husband. (Collins has had a domestic partner for 13 years. They are raising a 3-year-old boy.)
Once, Collins said, an incident had him feeling concerned for his own safety. A few years ago, he said, after working late, Collins was walking back to his car at night in the parking lot when he heard a group of middle- and high- school teens behind him, yelling slurs.
“I thought, `If I turn around and confront them, I’m not sure what’s going to happen,”‘ he said. “I walked to my car and drove off. That’s when I realized, `Wow, this could be more than just words.”‘
Collins said anti-gay slurs are also aimed at students. He said an elementary school teacher told him of a fourth- or fifth-grade student who is a frequent target.
“He’s perceived as being gay,” he said.
Collins said such teasing recently prompted a gay high school student to quit attending the Lennox Math, Science and Technology Academy.
Cindy Freeman, a member of the state’s Middle School Education Council – a subdivision of the Association of California School Administrators – said gay slurs are especially common in middle schools.
“They get such a charge out of saying `fag’ or `that’s so gay,”‘ said Freeman, herself a principal at Mira Loma Middle School in Riverside.
The flip side, she said, is that middle school students are extremely teachable; by high school, it’s more difficult to change their behavior. This underscores the urgency of nipping the problem in the bud, she said.
“This is the year they do that – yell out `faggot’ and think it’s funny,” she said. “And then, boom, they are in the principal’s office, where they are told, `Whoa, you can’t say that.”‘
At Mira Loma, Freeman conducts three fireside chats a year with her students to address bullying.
Freeman said she, too, has a gay teacher who, even though he is discreet about it, has been harassed by students.
She said she treats these incidents pretty much the same way she does those in which a student is bullied. After an investigation, the student and his or her parents are called in. The student is often asked to write a letter of apology and is usually suspended.
At Tuesday’s meeting, the Lennox teachers union adopted a tone that at times was provocative.
Premsriath, the union’s co-human rights chair, opened her remarks by calling Lennox school board member Marisol Cruz a “wetback,” saying Morales “sells oranges by the freeway,” that Assistant Superintendent Brian Johnson is the “white devil” and that new Superintendent Fred Navarro is a “coconut.”
“Pretty uncomfortable, huh? Extremely offensive, right? Horrible and disgusting, no?” she said. “Did any of you in this room want to stop me? I truly hope so. …
“My friend and colleague Robert Collins is a victim of hurtful slurs very much like these. He is not a child, and he can speak up for himself. And he has spoken up. Yet very little has changed as a result of his complaints.”
There is some disagreement among experts about how gay teachers should “come out” to middle school students.
Freeman said she wouldn’t recommend doing so on the first day of school, as Collins does.
“You want to build a relationship,” she said. “It kind of opens the door (for teasing) – not that it excuses anything.”
But Carolyn Laub, executive director of the national Gay- Straight Alliance Network, disagreed.
“I applaud the teacher for coming out at the beginning of the school year to his students,” she said. “We shouldn’t teach young people that someone’s difference is something they should hide.”
Chiasson of GLIDE said the rules for gay teachers can’t be different from the rules for straight teachers.
“You can’t tell a straight teacher `never ever tell your students that you’re married or have children,”‘ she said. “But I think the knee-jerk (reaction) people have is they sexualize homosexuality, and they romanticize heterosexuality.”