Parents Allege Anti-Gay Bullying Led to Fla. Student’s Attempted Suicide

by Jason St. Amand

National News Editor

Thursday May 24, 2012

Parents of 18-year-old Zachery Gray say that bullying from his fellow classmates was the reason why their son tried to take his own life last year.

Gray's mother, Lynn "Sissy" Gray, told the Tampa Bay news station WFLA-News Channel 8 that she believes that nonstop anti-gay bullying lead to her son's attempted suicide.

His mother claims that students verbally assaulted her son by calling him, "Gay Zach," "fag" and "queer," even though Gray was straight and had a girlfriend.

"He couldn't walk down the hallways without somebody saying something toward him," said his father, Tony Gray.

Gray's girlfriend Keylee Harris, who dated the teen for five months, said that she noticed the bullying as well.

"I really didn't start paying attention until we started dating in January," said Harris. "And then I started noticing people calling him 'fag,' 'gay' in the commons area - writing notes, treating him bad, just saying things."

On May 18, 2011, Gray, then 17, was suspended for pulling a prank on a teacher and allegedly endured another day of constant bullying. Gray tried to hang himself with a dog chain in a shed behind his home. But neighbors, his mother (who gave him CPR) and paramedics were able to save him.

The teen was supposed to graduate from Zephyrhills High School, located in Zephyrhills, Fla., this year but now suffers from brain damage and requires 24-hour care at a local medical center. He can no longer walk or talk.

Zephyrhills is about 17 miles east of Tampa Bay and the high school is in the Pasco County school district.

His family claims that the school did not do enough to stop the bullying. Under Florida law, school officials must report bullying incidents and "develop plans for ending harassing behavior," the article says.

But the school district won't talk about Gray's case because of "privacy concerns." Gray's father says the school's officials will no longer return their phone calls. The article also notes the district also won't say what officials are doing to follow the state's bullying requirements.

An investigation reports that Gray complained to a teacher that other students were making fun of his weight and sexuality -- calling him "heavy" and "Zach Gay" during a field trip.

The teacher, Brenda Carlson, told investigators that she asked the teen, "If someone calls you a tree, are you a tree? And if someone calls you gay, does that make you gay?"

Carlson did not report the bullying to the proper school officials and after Gray's suicide attempt she told investigators "she did not have any concerns that Zach was being bullied." She no longer works for the district.

"Her job was to come to me, tell me, go to the principal, go to authorities," said Sissy Gray. "She did nothing."

The Zephyrhills High School website has a page devoted to bullying and defines it as "systematically or chronically inflicting physical hurt or psychological distress on one or more students or employees."

There is also a section that offers advice on how to deal with bullies. "Don't react. Try acting like the bully does not bother you. Bullies like it when you get mad or upset. (This is hard and may take some practice.)," the site says. It also suggest that students should "steer clear" of harassers.

The website encourages victims to report bullying right away. "Tell someone. Tell your teacher. Tell your parents. Tell a friend. Tell the principal or your guidance counselor. Ask to talk to your school psychologist. These people will listen and help you decide what to do. If this is happening, tell an adult!"

Although Gray was not gay, suicide among LGBT youth has become a major issue, thanks to an increase in media coverage. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services more than 30 percent of all reported teen suicides each year are committed by gay and lesbian youth.

Four months before Gray attempted to take his life, local authorities launched an investigation when 15-year-old Kiefer Allan of Sunlake High School, which is in the same school district as Zephyrhills High School, shot himself due to bullying.

Students assumed he was gay despite the fact that Allan had girlfriends and was dating a girl at the time.

The article notes that "data sent from the district to the state Department of Education shows no incidents of bullying last year at Zephyrhills High School or Sunlake High School." The school district reported only 28 bullying incidents in the entire district, which has 89 schools and 67,000 students.

"It could be their numbers are low because they're doing a great job keeping their kids safe," said a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Education, Cheryl Etters.

"I have to be honest; I think it's ludicrous," Ray Kaplan, a sociologist and retired professor at the University of South Florida, told the news station. "I would say the vast majority of bullying is even unknown to the schools," he added. "Not only at that school, but at every school, it's a widespread phenomenon."