13-Year-Old Texas Boy Shoots Himself; Suffered ’Relentless’ Anti-Gay Bullying

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Tuesday September 28, 2010

A 13-year-old boy in Texas has killed himself after suffering 'relentless' bullying at school, according to a Sept. 27 story in local newspaper the Houston Chronicle.

Asher Brown was a straight-A student, the article said, but he came in for harassment at school because of his religion and because he didn't dress the way some of his peers expected he should. Asher's parents told the media that their son was "bullied to death" by schoolmates, and said that the harassment Asher endured even took the form of simulated sex acts forced on the boy in gym class. The bullies, the bereaved parents said, called Asher gay and were "relentless" in their torments, even as Asher's parents attempted on numerous occasions over the last year and a half to get school administrators to intervene.

Asher lived in the area of Cypress, Texas, and attended Hamilton Middle School, which is part of the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District, the article said. Asher's torments began two years ago when he began to attend the school, and he sought refuge in the company of other students who were similarly targeted for harassment, the article reported.

Asher's stepfather said that the boy had come out as gay on the morning of Sept. 23, and his parents were supportive of him; but that afternoon, Asher shot and killed himself using his stepfather's gun.

The school denied that Asher's parents sought help for their son, and claimed not to know about the bullying that the boy allegedly suffered at the hands of his classmates. A spokesperson for the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District, Kelli Durham, said that Asher's parents had never reported the bullying their son endured or sought help from school officials.

"That's absolutely inaccurate--it's completely false," Asher's mother, Amy Truong, told the media. "I did not hallucinate phone calls to counselors and assistant principals. We have no reason to make this up." Added Truong, "It's like they're calling us liars."

"My son put a gun to his head because he couldn't take what he was hearing and the constant teasing," stepfather David Truong said, according to a Fox26 news story posted on Sept. 27.

Fox 26 reported that Asher was also bullied at his previous school, prior to attending Hamilton Middle School, where the harassment he endured continued--and got even worse.

Nationally, children as young as 11 have committed suicide in recent years, after having endured relentless bullying at school. The bullying often takes the form of anti-gay taunts and harassment, even when the children being bullied are not gay. Groups such as the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network (GLSEN) seek to provide educational materials in order to promote a safe learning environment in the schools, but some schools have policies in place that deny students classroom learning about human sexual diversity.

In two separate incidents in different parts of the country, two youths, both 15 years old, hanged themselves after enduring anti-gay bullying at school. A news anchor at a CBS affiliate WCCO in Anoka, Minnesota, reported on Sept. 13 on the hanging death of 15-year old Justin Aaberg, a student in the Anoka-Hennepin school district in Minnesota, who had come out as gay two years earlier and endured anti-gay harassment at school. The anchor said that there had been "a record number of suicides" in the school district, "mostly among gay students." The article cited a teacher--who commented anonymously for fear of reprisal--who said that he thought three of the students who had killed themselves were struggling with their sexuality.

"I actually thought he had the perfect life," said Aaberg's mother, Tammy Aaberg, who discovered her son's dead body on July 9. "I thought out of anybody I knew that he had the perfect life. But I guess he didn't think so." The article said that Tammy Aaberg had become an advocate of changing the school system's policy on sex ed, which states that, "Teaching about sexual orientation is not a part of the District adopted curriculum; rather, such matters are best addressed within individual family homes, churches, or community organizations."

But an unnamed lesbian alumna of the school district addressed the Anoka-Hennepin School Board at an Aug. 23 meeting, telling them that she had not had a family or church that she could turn to as a young gay person. "If you have students feeling like they're isolated, like they have no one to turn to, and then they fill with self-hatred, are we surprised that we're having suicides in the district by GLBT students? Something needs to happen."

Tammy Aaberg also addressed the school board, the report said, having found out from her son's LGBT classmates that he had been bullied at school--and the classmates, also, had endured abuse. The teachers reportedly did nothing to intervene. The news article said that this was due to the sex ed policy, which school staff feared could be used against them if they came to the defense of gay and lesbian students who were being harassed. ""I'm asking you all to rewrite the policy in order to give teachers training in how to be more sensitive to GLBT students," Tammy Aaberg appealed to the school board.

"These kids, they just hate themselves. They literally feel like they want to die. So many kids are telling me this," Tammy Aaberg told the news station.

No Discussion of Human Sexual Diversity

The school's administrators, however, drew a distinction between anti-gay bullying and sex ed. "We have a community that has widely varying opinions, and so to respect all families, as the policy says, we ask teachers to remain neutral," spokesperson Mary Olson told the media. However, Olson said, teachers and staff were set to receive updated training that would address anti-gay bullying.

Two Anoka-Hennepin School District teachers were accused last year of tag-teaming a student whom they harassed, insinuating that he was gay and embarrassing him in front of his classmates. The student, who was not gay, eventually transferred to another district and brought suit against Anoka-Hennepin. The district settled with him for $25,000. The teachers in the case were placed on leave, and remain on leave currently, the WCCO report said.

Olson told the media that, "we work really hard to make sure that our schools are safe." But safe schools are a controversial subject. As a rash of student suicides has continued, school districts around the country have taken steps to provide a safe learning environment for all pupils. But anti-gay groups have stepped up pressure on schools and lawmakers not to provide specific protections for LGBT youth, saying that such protections would "sideline" and "belittle" religious students and their parents.

Anti-gay group Focus on the Family told the Denver Post recently that as society in general--and public schools--begin to comprehend that gays and lesbians are a normal and natural part of human diversity, anti-gay religious views may be shunted aside and no loner hold sway in the classroom.

"We feel more and more that activists are being deceptive in using anti-bullying rhetoric to introduce their viewpoints, while the viewpoint of Christian students and parents are increasingly belittled," the FOF's education expert, Candi Cushman, said.

Christian groups in recent years have targeted LGBT youth by pressuring schools not to allow the national "Day of Silence" to be observed. The Day of Silence is marked by students who refuse to speak while outside of class, in order to express a sense of powerlessness and lack of voice, or to show sympathy with gay youths who experience that sense of disenfranchisement.

Handbooks on countering the Day of Silence, distributed by anti-gay religious groups, recommend that parents pull their children from school rather than attend on a day when LGBT youth and their straight supporters make a conspicuous show of quietude. The handbooks also offer talking points for parents and students who wish to confront school administrators or Day of Silence participants, including claims that homosexuality is a "chosen" behavior and not an innate characteristic.

The head of the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN), Eliza Byard, told the Denver Post that Focus on the Family had it partially right. "Yes, we want LGBT students afforded full respect," Byard acknowledged, going on to say, "Bullying is a serious public health crisis in this country, according to no less an authority than the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services."

GLSEN tracks anti-gay harassment and violence in public schools. A 2009 survey of more than 7,200 middle and high school students conducted by the group demonstrated that about 9 out of 10 GLBT students had been harassed at school, with about two-thirds reporting that they feared for their safety while at school. This led about a third of GLTB students to cut school at least once per month. Others dropped out of school altogether. Despite efforts at educational outreach and higher visibility of the problem of bullying in the public schools, physical attacks are as prevalent against LGBT youth as ten years ago--even as the use of homophobic slurs has decreased.

"In 1999, GLSEN began data collection on the school experiences of LGBT students in order to fill a critical void in our knowledge and understanding of the ways LGBT issues play out in schools," Byard said in a press release detailing the report's findings. "It could not be clearer that there is an urgent need for action to create safe and affirming schools for LGBT students." Added Byard, "As our nation seems to finally be taking bullying more seriously, it is crucial that LGBT students are no longer left out of efforts to address this public health crisis."

The Post noted that Cushman had created True Tolerance, a website that purports to help parents "respond in a loving and fact-based way"--not to bullying, but rather to "homosexual advocacy" in schools. The site offers materials prepared in conjunction with anti-gay groups the Alliance Defense Fund--a legal organization that describes itself as "a legal alliance defending the right to hear and speak the Truth through strategy, training, funding, and direct litigation"--and Exodus International, an organization that purports to help gays "convert" to heterosexuality and which promises that, "Freedom is possible through Jesus Christ!"

One document available for download bears the Alliance Defense Fund logo and reads in part, "there are individuals and organizations that seek to limit the information students receive rather than expand their knowledge on some of the critical issues they face during their formative years. This one-sided approach is especially visible during events such as the Day of Silence, which is annually promoted by GLSEN-the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network.

"GLSEN and other advocacy groups encourage students and teachers to use events like the Day of Silence as a political tool to force an adult agenda into school policy and curriculum," the letter claims.

The letter goes on to say that "no one disagrees with the fact that all students should enjoy a safe environment." But to school administrators and state lawmakers, the need to take action on making schools safer for all students has only been heightened in recent years, as one young child after another has killed him- or herself after enduring relentless anti-gay taunts--even though some of the victims were not gay.

Parents' Efforts Not Rewarded

Even as Asher's parents say they tried in vain to get school officials to intercede, other bereaved parents also say that their attempts to spur action were for naught. 11-year-old Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover of Springfield, Mass., suffered anti-gay taunts at school despite his mother's reported "weekly" attempts to get the school to stop the harassment. Hoover hung himself on April 6, 2009.

Less than three weeks later, another 11-year-old boy, Jeheem Herrera, hung himself in Georgia, after enduring anti-gay taunts.

The loss of life and the legal consequences of failing to maintain safety in the school environment have led to some high-profile attempts at remedying the situation. Earlier this summer, The New York state senate passed a measure to combat bullying in public schools, the Dignity for All Students Act, with bipartisan support and by an overwhelming margin of 58-3.

A similar bill--though one that lacked specific language regarding LGBT youth--was signed into law in May by Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick. Although the bill does not specifically extend protections to GLBT youth, safe school advocates expressed the hope that the bill, if "implemented and enforced correctly," would protect sexual minorities.

The nation's patchwork of laws regarding the bullying of youthful LGBTs could be standardized if federal lawmakers pass a bill introduced in May by Minnesota Democratic Sen. Al Franken.

"Our nation's civil rights laws protect our children from bullying due to race, sex, religion, disability and national origin," noted Franken. "My proposal corrects a glaring injustice and extends these protections to our gay and lesbian students who need them just as badly."

In addition to criminalizing anti-gay harassment and violence at school, the bill provides penalties for schools that do nothing when its students are being bullied. Under the bill's provisions, standing by and doing nothing while GLBT kids are attacked will mean a loss of federal funds. The bill also forbids discrimination by the schools themselves. Franken's measure has garnered the support of 22 co-sponsors.

But religiously motivated foes of anti-bullying programs have only stepped up pressure to derail efforts at making schools safer. In California, an evangelical pastor named Dion Evans led an attempt to strip anti-bullying lessons out of school curricula.

Efforts to gut safe schools initiatives are playing out against a backdrop of violence and death, however. On Sept. 9--two months to the day after Tammy Aaberg found her son dead in his bedroom--another mother found her son had hung himself. In Greensburg, Indiana, 15-year-old Billy Lucas killed himself in his family's barn after suffering ongoing--and worsening--anti-gay harassment, even though he may not have been gay. He never said that he was, but other students assumed him to be gay, and taunted him for it, reported Fox news station WXIN in Indianapolis on Sept. 13.

"People would call him 'fag' and stuff like that, just make fun of him because he's different basically," said a fellow Greensburg High School student, Dillen Swango. "They said stuff like 'you're like a piece of crap' and 'you don't deserve to live.' Different things like that. Talked about how he was gay or whatever."

And some students reportedly told the Billy to kill himself on the day he hung himself, the report said. Moreover, whereas the school's administration claimed ignorance about the harassment Billy faced, the students all seemed to know about it. "We were not aware of that situation," Principal Phil Chappel told the news station. "We're discussing where we are going. Where we are looking to establish a committee."

But anti-gay harassment and violence are nothing new at Greensburg High School. The news report quoted one alumnus--who asked to remain unnamed--as saying, "I was bullied several times because I was gay. I was called fag, queer. I was thrown up against lockers. I would tell the school officials about it and they would dismiss it." Added the former student, ""I can't help but take it personally because when all of this was happening to me I was the same age he was. I also attempted to commit suicide."

A Sept. 28 posting at the Fox 26 website purported to be from Asher's older brother. "I thank everybody for caring so much about the death of my little brother, it means so much to the family," the posting read. "[S]omething has to be done at schools this can't go on anymore how many more have to die before something is done about it," the posting continued, "and to all those kids who picked on my brother for him being gay or whatever you might as well have killed him yourself and the parents are just as guilty for not controlling there kids, or teaching them better, how would you feel if it was your kid[?]"

The posting went on, "I'm his older brother and I'm gay and I'm proud of his standing up for who he is[. W]e'll never know what pushed him over the edge that day at school cause he left no note saying why[.]

[D]on't let his death be in vain," the posting added. "[N]ow y'all have to be his voice and demand that the school do something about it, before someone else is the victim of school bullies, cause I only have one brother left and I won't loose [sic] him too, enough is enough."

Others also weighed in. "My son feels very blessed to have had Asher in his life!" wrote one reader, while another directed viewers to the "It Gets Better" project, a series of affirming videos posted at YouTube intended to get the message to LGBT youth that the torments of school need not be taken as cause to end their own lives.

"My son goes to Hamilton, he is a part of the Lunch Group that sit together because they get picked on," posted one participant in the comments thread. "He was friends with Asher. He knows who the kids are that are always picking on others. They are always the same ones and they never get into trouble because they run with the popular crowd that runs the school. It seems that the Administration does not want to cross these students or their parents. I spoke with a counselor yesterday, and she had a lot of hot air to blow at me."

Another comment from a parent read, "My daughter goes to Hamilton. She also says there are 4 boys that everybody is afraid of. Well I am not afraid of them or their parents and if Hamilton does not do something about this I am prepared to sit in every class with my daughter if I have too!" Wrote still another, "My son is a 7th grader at Hamilton. If there is a big enough push by the parents, maybe we can change things."

A parent whose daughter attended a different school in the same district wrote, "A group of 'thug' girls torment students. Parent's [sic] wrote letters, visited [the] school, several young ladies where [sic] attacked by these kids, students won't use the bathroom for fear of being attacked in the bathroom and the school did NOTHING. NOTHING. What was done to this little boy makes me sick. All the school does is put up a poster. A POSTER."

Several postings purportedly came from parents whose children had been bullied at Hamilton Middle School. One parent described the harrowing bullying that the child had allegedly suffered. The poster's daughter was physically attacked, the posting claimed, and episodes of abuse continued for a year and a half with no intervention from teachers of administrators. The girl suffered such emotional trauma that a therapist recommended she be removed from the school and warned her parents that her life was in jeopardy, the posting said.

"We have over 40 pages of emails documenting the bullying and we made countless phone calls, to no avail. The seventh grade counselor said he was keeping an eye on our daughter and that she seemed to be doing just fine. He had not observed any bullying. If he really was keeping an eye on our daughter, he would know she was being bullied. It was quite obvious," the posting read.

"The counselor never even referred the bullying issues to the Assistant Principal who, apparently, was the appropriate person to handle bullying issues," the posting added. "We copied the principal and she claimed she never received our email. All transfer requests were met with extreme resistance. The principal told us that a transfer would not be granted unless we named names which was the last thing we were going to do until after a transfer had been granted." Eventually, after going to the Board of Trustees, the bullied girl's parents were granted a transfer.

"Unlike Asher Brown and his family, our story has a happy ending," the posting added. "Our daughter is thriving at Smith Middle School where individuality is encouraged . . . where it's okay to be different . . . where even gossiping is cause for discipline. To our knowledge, bullying is non-existent at Smith!"

NOTE: The email for Asher Brown's school district is [email protected] if you want to send them a message.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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