CHILLICOTHE, OHIO – School and law enforcement officials still are evaluating evidence in the Oct. 17 beating of a Unioto High School freshman whose mother thinks the attack was tied to his sexual orientation.
Rebecca Collins said Thursday she thinks the school has not done enough to address bullying.
“I’ve called and called and called … (The response) has been real lackadaisical, ‘kids will be kids,’” Collins said.
Officials, however, say they still are evaluating evidence, including a cellphone video and a Facebook post, that came to light after the school’s initial investigation, which indicated the fight was not motivated by the boy’s sexuality.
During the two years her son has been at Unioto, and even at his previous school, Collins said her son repeatedly has been called names relating to his sexuality.
Oct. 17 was the first time those taunts escalated into a physical attack, she said. Before the assault, Collins said she was not aware her son had any issues with the boy who struck him.
“I just want it to stop. I want my son to be left alone. I worry about my son every time he walks out the door,” Collins said, adding people should accept others regardless of sexual orientation, race or any other differences.
The Gazette is not using the names of either boy involved in the incident in compliance with its internal guidelines.
Unioto High School Principal Jim Osborne said he couldn’t talk about specifics, but he said that he had spoken with Collins about concerns she had.
“I’m sorry she feels that way (about our discussion). I feel our conversations were pretty productive,” Osborne said.
What prompted the fight
Collins’ concerns have been aired by Columbus media outlets, but those reports have failed to include additional information about the investigation itself.
According to the initial report obtained Thursday by the Gazette, the two boys were on their way to a third-period class when they “bumped shoulders.” The 15-year-old suspect told deputies he has a mental illness, that he “just zoned out,” and didn’t know why he punched Collins’ son, according to the report.
Collins’ son sustained a black eye, a knot behind his ear, a chipped tooth and a possible concussion, Collins said.
While Collins told deputies she thought the fight was motivated by her son’s sexuality, the report indicates Osborne told the deputy he talked to the teacher and students in the classroom and no one reported the student saying anything about Collins’ son’s sexuality.
When a cell phone video of the fight showed up on Facebook, Collins reported it. The video, allegedly taken by the aggressor’s cousin, shows he waited for Collins’ son and then struck him multiple times. She also reported a comment the boy made on her son’s Facebook photo two days before the attack. She said the comment made a derogatory reference to her son’s sexuality.
According to Collins, the student was given a three-day suspension for the fight. While Osborne declined to confirm the suspension due to confidentiality issues, he said the discipline in the situation was meted out days before he became aware of the video, which contradicted his investigation and appears to reveal premeditation.
“We’re continuing to look at options,” Osborne said.
While the school has surveillance cameras, they are only located in the hallways and not the classroom where the fight occurred. Since the fight happened during a class change, the teacher was monitoring the hallway outside the room as they are required to do during class changes, Osborne said.
While the sheriff’s office continues to investigate the motive, Ross County Prosecutor Matt Schmidt said his office is evaluating whether to file an assault or felonious assault charge.
“What people are failing to understand is there isn’t an Ohio law to enhance it (if the assault was motivated by the victim’s sexuality),” Schmidt said.
There is a federal hate crime law, he added, but the federal district attorney would have to file the charge, and Collins could approach him about it. He also said he has not heard from Collins or her son, but certainly is willing to listen to them if they want to talk with him. Schmidt anticipates filing the charge from his office today.
Collins said she wants to see the school enforce zero tolerance for all bullying and implement stricter consequences.
“To me, it’s not only the kids doing it. The teachers aren’t stepping in,” Collins said. “If it has to be everyone walks a single line like preschool, then have it.”
A 2007 state law requires districts to have a districtwide policy that prohibits harassment, intimidation or bullying. The policy must include numerous aspects, including a requirement of staff to report incidents and parents or guardians of any student involved in the incident be contacted.
The law also requires the policy to include a procedure to investigate incidents and a strategy for protecting the victim from additional harassment.
The law does not include verbiage about sexuality, but a pending bill (House Bill 208) would amend the law to prohibit bullying “based on any actual or perceived trait or characteristic of a student.” A definition of “trait or characteristic” is included in the proposed bill and includes sexual orientation and gender identity.
Unioto Superintendent Dwight Garrett said Thursday that the district’s legal counsel advised him not to speak about the specifics of the fight. He did say he had not heard from Collins about any bullying concerns until after Oct. 17, but she had spoken to Osborne before.
“We have one goal and that’s to educate every student. A lot of these things that are going on happen before or after school and on social media, then they bring it to school,” Garrett said, adding school officials do not have jurisdiction over what happens on social media sites.
He said the district does have the required policy and adheres to it. The high school had an assembly on cyberbullying three days after the fight that Osborne and Garrett said had already been scheduled before the fight.
Staff is educated annually about reporting bullying, and the high school has at least one education assembly on bullying a year, Osborne said. While there have been reports of bullying before relating to sexuality, Osborne said he doesn’t get them often and has not had an assault on any other student who is out about his or her homosexuality.
“(Bullying) is an ever-ongoing battle in these schools today. Every situation is different,” Osborne said.
When Osborne receives a report of bullying, it is first investigated for validity since sometimes he gets anonymous reports of bogus complaints as a joke.
Once a report is determined to be valid, if it is the first occurrence, Osborne said they handle it as an educational opportunity. They talk about bullying, why they should not behave that way and that there will be disciplinary consequences, which are outlined in the code of conduct, if the behavior continues, he said.
“We’re trying to teach these kids diversity and social tolerance, a lot of things that aren’t just academic,” Osborne said.
Collins intends to continue pushing the issue. Osborne said Thursday he is supportive of the mother standing up for her son.
Collins said she has contacted Citizens Against Bigotry and Prejudice for assistance. According its Facebook site, the group, located near Youngstown, is a grass-roots effort begun in May “to add exposure to those who are teaching hate, and promoting hate amongst the LGBTQ community.”
The Chillicothe Gazette also received a call Thursday afternoon from Richard Walsh, who works with the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, that GLSEN is planning to offer support to Collins and her son.
In a statement on the incident released late Thursday, GLSEN said that according to its 2009 National School Climate Survey, one in four LGBT students in Ohio had experienced some sort of physical assault at school within the past year because of their sexual orientation.
“It is extremely frustrating for us at GLSEN to watch a student get bullied when there are tools and resources that are proven to reduce and prevent similar incidents from taking place in a classroom or hallway,” said GLSEN Executive Director Eliza Byard. “School districts with comprehensive anti-bullying policies inclusive of sexual orientation and gender identity are effective at curbing anti-LGBT bullying and harassment. It is time for the Union-Scioto school district and every school in Ohio to protect students from the kind of torment that everyone has witnessed on video.”
Walsh said Equality Ohio is evaluating the story and discussing potentially organizing a town hall meeting in response.
The issue also had a residual impact on Chillicothe High School, where officials starting receiving calls after another media outlet reported the location as “a Chillicothe high school” and not specifying the fight happened at Unioto. The calls prompted Superintendent Jon Saxton to release a public statement.
“We believe that this is an unfortunate incident for any school, student, or parent to experience. We regret that such incidents do occur in schools, but want to clarify that the location of this incident was not on a Chillicothe School District building,” Saxton wrote.
from The Chillicothe Gazette