2021 | Schools

UPDATED: Advocates urge MCPS not to downplay harassment of LGBTQ students

Walter Johnson principal criticized for her response to homophobic graffiti

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This story was updated at 7:45 p.m. Oct. 14, 2021, to add information about Julius West Middle School’s No Place for Hate activities.

The Montgomery County Council of PTAs is calling upon county school officials to respond to incidents of harassment against LGBTQ students as aggressively and publicly as the district responds to those involving race or religion.

President Cynthia Simonson and Mark Eckstein, chair of the organization’s LGBTQ committee, said they have contacted Montgomery County Public Schools officials to urge the district to clearly state when reporting incidents that the LGBTQ community was targeted.

Racist and homophobic graffiti was found spray painted Oct. 3 at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda. The graffiti referenced white supremacy and included the phrase “LGBT is unnatural,” according to MCPS.

County police are investigating the vandalism, which also occurred off school property.

An Oct. 3 letter sent to the school community from Walter Johnson Principal Jennifer Baker did not directly address the graffiti targeting the LGBTQ community.

In her letter, Baker said she was “deeply troubled and disheartened” to learn about the vandalism that “included references to white supremacy and other hate speech.” The letter said “these actions will not be tolerated” and any students found to be involved would be disciplined according to the MCPS student code of conduct.

On social media, advocates called out the school for not specifically mentioning the graffiti against the LGBTQ community. “Why didn’t MCPS and the WJHS Principal call-out LGBTQ Hate too. In her Letter to the school, she referred to LGBTQ as ‘other hate’. If you don’t ENUMERATE ‘LGBTQ’ then you ‘other’ us,” said an Instagram post from mcps_lgbtq, a group of parents, students and staff “working to improve the LGBTQ+ experiences.”

Baker acknowledged in an interview on Tuesday that her communication to the Walter Johnson community could have been more “thorough.”

But she noted that the school’s “follow-up” actions in recent days have been inclusive. There was a lesson for students that addressed the hate speech directed at the LGBTQ community. Students also were asked to sign a pledge to “stand up” against hate.

Baker said she also met Monday with leaders of a variety of student groups, including the Gender and Sexuality Alliance, the Minority Scholars Program and the Hispanic Cultural Club to “talk about how we can unify as a school community.”

“I felt we were in a good space,” Baker said. “They did provide some feedback about responses and what they felt were needed and we listened and we heard and we will take their feedback.”

Simonson said Monday that MCPS officials have suggested a meeting with MCCPTA representatives to discuss the issue.

“When we are talking about hate speech, everybody identifies something from their own experience,” she said. “So, when you just say ‘hate speech,’ there’s a whole host of different items. I think that by calling it what it is and ensuring we are being clear on who is being targeted in this aggression, perhaps that would be helpful to the public consciousness.”

Eckstein called out the district’s response to the graffiti, as well as the harassment experienced this fall by an eighth-grade transgender boy at Julius West Middle School in Rockville, saying “institutional bias seems to cause MCPS to respond to LGBTQ hate in a smaller degree as compared to racial or religious-based hate.”

The Julius West eighth-grader and his parents, who did not want to be identified to protect their privacy, have filed several complaints with the school about bullying that began the first day of school.

According to the family, the student had just settled into his seat in technology class on the first day when the boy sitting in front of him turned around and called him a homophobic slur. “The kid just looked at me, said it, looked away,” the teen, who turned 14 last week, said recently. “It was like the wicked, most awful interaction that I had.”

The eighth-grader said he later told his technology teacher about the incident. The teacher took “pretty quick action,” confronting the other student, alerting administrators and moving the other student’s seat to another part of the classroom.  

The incident was just one of several acts of harassment that the eighth-grader has endured during the first few weeks of school, according to his parents.

Two days later, with his parents expecting a call from school officials investigating the first incident, an assistant principal called to tell them about another incident that occurred on the school bus. A boy sitting next to the student had called him the same homophobic slur that the other student had used in the technology class.

“Honestly, I burst into tears,” the boy’s mother said about the call. “I felt so helpless to do anything to prevent this kind of thing happening to my son.”

Other incidents include students asking the eighth-grader whether he is a boy or a girl, making references to his genitalia and telling him he is mentally ill, his parents said.

In an email, MCPS spokesman Chris Cram wrote that Julius West Principal Craig Staton and his team have “very much been on top of this matter and have approached it as a teaching moment.”

The staff have “worked quickly and thoroughly to support the student who experienced some verbal harassment,” Cram wrote. “They’ve met with the family, developed supports and are following not only the appropriate disciplinary processes for students who made inappropriate comments but are working to educate those students and really the whole school community.”

Staton did not respond to requests for comment.

Julius West is designated as a “No Place for Hate” school, participating in the Anti-Defamation League’s initiative that calls for training, presentations and activities to teach students and staff about preventing bias and bullying.

During the previous school year, Julius West provided more than 20 schoolwide virtual lessons on different activities centered around the theme of No Place for Hate, including a talk by Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School graduate Collin Martin, the only openly gay professional soccer player in the U.S., according to Michael Edwards, the school’s No Place for Hate and restorative justice coordinator. 

Like many other MCPS schools, Julius West also practices restorative justice, “an approach to building community, self-care, and conflict resolution” that actively engages students in taking responsibility for their actions and solving problems, according to MCPS.

Eckstein and the student’s parents said school officials have been responsive, but the school must take a stronger stance against the harassment and do more work to educate the students and the school community.

The student’s parents said they told school administrators that a letter Staton sent to the school community after the first incidents didn’t address the exact nature of the slurs used against their son or the need to remind students that there would be serious consequences for such incidents.

They said school officials then addressed the issue more seriously in a newsletter and told the family they would take additional steps to raise awareness in the school community. Eckstein spoke Tuesday night to the school’s PTA as part of a presentation on LGBTQ issues.

After the more recent incidents, administrators moved the student’s locker to a “more highly monitored” location and told him he could leave his classes earlier than other students, so he wouldn’t encounter as many students in the hallway, his father said Monday.

While they appreciate the school’s response, the parents said they’d prefer that their son did not have to take steps to avoid harassment.

“They’ve spent a lot of time talking to us about this and I want them to spend more time talking to the community in general about the problem, to the kids and their parents, so the parents can talk to their kids and maybe we can reduce the incident rate rather than have to constantly be playing defense,” the father said.

The eighth-grader said he doesn’t think the school can change its culture, especially because students don’t take the “No Place for Hate” presentations seriously.

“No matter how confident the school makes me feel about, like, my safety and the level of acceptance at the school, there’s always going to be another [incident] that continues to prove them wrong,” he said.