The case of an openly gay Ohio student whose vicious bullying attack was caught on video is increasing calls for anti bullying policies aimed specifically at protecting gays. The video went viral on the web, prompting the school district to take action. It may even have an effect on pending legislation at the statehouse.
Zach Huston had complained to officials at Union-Scioto High School about taunting and teasing from his classmates several times. Little was done about his complaints. “Kids will be kids,” he was told by teachers and administrators at the rural central Ohio school
On October 17, Huston walked into a classroom. He walked into the middle of an ambush.
A video – thought to have been taken by the perpetrator’s cousin – shows a boy pacing in a classroom until Huston enters, at which point Huston gets pushed around, knocked to the ground, and punched repetitively.
Once the video went viral on the web, it was picked up by Columbus TV stations. That’s where it caught the attention of Bret Thompson of Columbus and prompted him to act.
“I decided to get involved and start an online petition, which to date over 84,000 people have signed on asking the school district down there to reform their policies.”
Not only did his petition quickly gather signatures, Thompson says he also received about 4,000 comments on his petition’s website.
“People that were former and current students at that school. Educators across the state, first responders, parents, so many people that have been personally affected by this,” he said.
Thompson says he quickly realized the beating of Huston was not an isolated event.
“It’s much bigger than just the school or just the incident. Things like this happen to varying degrees of severity every day in the schools across Ohio.”
A 2005 study by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network found that nearly half of Ohio students considered bullying in general to be a serious problem in their schools. A more recent national study showed that almost 90 percent of LGBT students had experienced harassment..
Thompson is asking them to explicitly protect gay and transgender students in that policy.
Zach Huston – the student who was beaten up – has taken his case to the American Civil Liberties Union.
James Hardiman is the legal director for the Ohio ACLU.
Hardiman says the school has a “responsibility to not only have a learning environment but a safe learning environment. That did not occur in this instance.”
He says he has talked with school officials and asked them to amend their anti-harassment policy and resolve the situation with Huston.
But he says he deals with these sorts of cases all the time, from every corner of the state.
Hardiman blames the state’s statute.
State law says Ohio’s schools must have anti-harassment policies. The Ohio Department of Education even has a sample policy schools can adopt, or use as a guide for writing their own.
But most schools in Ohio do not have language specifically protecting gay and transgender students.
Ed Mullen, executive Director of EqualityOhio, says that’s the problem.
-Ed Mullen, Executive Director of EqualityOhio
“If you don’t put in the policy that people shouldn’t be bullied based upon their orientation or sexual identity, often times in rural and more conservative areas as well as some suburban school districts that we’ve seen, teachers don’t believe they are supposed to intervene when someone says…’That’s so gay,’” Mullen says.
He wants school to list everyone who is protected under an anti-harassment policy instead of just generally telling students “don’t bully.”
Mullen says that is probably not going to prevent all bullying, but “it at least lets people know on day one that that’s against the school policy and that’s unacceptable.”
There are also two proposed bills around school bullying in the Ohio legislature. One would prohibit harassment on actual or perceived traits in a student. That one is stalled in committee.
The other requires schools to train their teachers and students about bullying. That one has passed in the House, and is in the hands of the Senate.
These laws aren’t always the easiest to pass. Mullen says there is often push back that the current anti-harassment policies are enough, that these laws push too far into local school jurisdiction, or that they advocate on behalf of gay students.
Mullen hopes the attention of the Union-Scioto case will give these bills a boost.