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Bullied Gay Teen Fights Ariz. School District

by Megan Barnes
Contributor
Sunday Nov 6, 2011
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A gay Arizona teen who was bullied so relentlessly he once considered suicide is drawing national attention to pressure his former school district to implement tougher bullying policies.

Merik Castro, a 14-year-old from Avondale, Ariz., says recent policy changes adopted by the Litchfield Elementary School District fall short of fully protecting LGBT students.

After Castro collected more than 3,000 online petition signatures and generated publicity, the school board updated its bullying guidelines at a packed public meeting last month, adding "sexual preference" under its harassment policy. The word "preference" implies that orientation is a choice, Castro says, assigning blame to victims.

"It basically says you’re choosing this lifestyle," Castro told EDGE. "You’re choosing to be bullied."

He wants the school district to not only change the wording, but also to adopt further anti-bullying policies. He has already received dozens of petition signatures supporting him. And if the district doesn’t comply, he plans to sue or recall school board members.

"If [the school district] would’ve done something, I wouldn’t have to share my story," he said. "There are students being bullied and nothing’s being done about it."

Castro said he was called names, pushed into lockers and taunted so severely by his classmates at Wigwam Creek Middle School that he wrote a suicide letter. He eventually reached out to Caleb Laieski, a 16-year-old activist for bullied LGBT youth.

After Laieski sent in an anonymous tip about a student being bullied for his sexual orientation, the school focused on Castro and launched an investigation. Three students were eventually suspended and Castro transferred schools.

"I feel like they expelled me out to get rid of the problem," he said. "They got rid of the victim, but not the bullying."

Ann Donahue, community liaison for the Litchfield Elementary School District, said Castro chose to transfer. She could not confirm allegations that the superintendent pulled aside Castro and his mother, a school district employee, and pressed them with questions about his sexual orientation.

"She told me, ’Well now that you’re choosing this alternative lifestyle, there come consequences and you’re going to get bullied,’" recalled Castro.

"There are a lot of violations and lot of nonsense is going on," said Laieski, who gained national attention earlier this year when he pressured his Arizona school district to strengthen its bullying policies after he was similarly taunted. He met with President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden and is currently working to create an LGBT youth liaison to the White House.

Laieski requested a meeting between the Litchfield Elementary School District superintendent, school board members and Castro’s family but was denied because Castro is no longer a student and the school board cannot meet behind closed doors. He never heard back from the individual board members.

Donahue said she was unaware of the latter request and that the school district is open to changing "sexual preference" to "sexual orientation."

"We’re looking into that right now and if in fact that needs to be changed, we’re happy to do that," she said. "We’re certainly very sensitive to the LGBT issue, but we’re not going to add that particular title [LGBT] to our school board policy because we don’t list the different types of kids that are bullied."

She thinks Castro should bring his concerns to the state Legislature, rather than the school district, to make a bigger impact.

"Our curriculum is to teach about bullying in general and being nice to people and not being mean. Even in the bullying program we don’t differentiate groups," said Donahue. "This is a preschool through eighth grade district and I think a lot of the LGBT information is kind of new to young kids that age, that’s a very young age to be presenting that type of information."

Bullying awareness videos were recently added to the school district’s website. Administrators have been flooded with hundreds of emails from Castro’s supporters and a small rally was held outside the school district’s office.

Donahue has likened the uproar to "being bullied."

"You should at least release a more professional statement," responded Laieski.

He thinks the problem is administrators bringing their personal views to work and coercing victims out of schools while bullies are merely slapped on the wrist. "I think it’s important to treat the cause, and then the symptoms won’t have to be treated," he said.

As for Castro, he said he feels safe and supported at his new high school-Arizona Agribusiness and Equine Center-which has a zero-tolerance bullying policy. Litchfield opposes a zero-tolerance bullying policy because students can be wrongly expelled, Donahue said.

Laieski is helping Castro look into legal options and the process of recalling school board members.

Megan Barnes is a freelance journalist in Los Angeles. She regularly contributes to EDGE, San Pedro Today and was a founding editor of alternative UCSB newspaper The Bottom Line. More of her work can be found at www.megbarnes.com

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