crime scenes

Is There Any Hope for Tolerance at Washington’s Mount Si High School?

Teachers at Mount Si High School, in the Snoqualmie Valley in western Washington State, could have done more to aid the 14-year-old freshman boy attacked in the locker room after coming to the defense of a friend perceived as gay by bullies, according to the just-released results of an independent investigation. Like call 911.

The attack, which took place in November after weeks of taunts, left the defender of the “suspected gay” with a broken eye socket, concussion, and two broken teeth. This is high school, might we remind you. The Seattle Times reports in an extensive story on the school:

On Friday, Nov. 6, shortly after noon, the two 14-year-olds came into the locker room to change after PE class. Johnson said the freshman who allegedly led the harassment started taunting the one boy about his presumed sexual orientation.

When Johnson’s son swore and told him to leave his friend alone, a 16-year-old junior stepped into the dispute. He struck Johnson’s son twice in the face, lifted him off a bench, kneed him in the face and, when he fell to the ground, kicked him, according to witness statements to the police. A school-surveillance camera caught the 16-year-old leaving the locker room, shaking his hand as if in pain, said Johnson, who has watched the tape.

Johnson was summoned to the school by a frantic call from her son. When she arrived about 1 p.m., she said her son was bleeding from the eye and nose and was nearly “unrecognizable” on the left side of his face. She assumed that an aid car had been called, but one wasn’t summoned until 1:16 p.m., according to police records.

She also learned that a vice principal had asked the boy to go back to the locker room and search for his missing tooth.

And so here comes the report.

Late Thursday afternoon, the Snoqualmie Valley School District released the report of an independent investigation into the assault and the school’s response. The report concluded that administrators could have handled some things differently. For example, numerous administrators could have called 911 but did not, the report said. Nonetheless, it concluded the failings were unintentional. The report makes no conclusions about the school’s handling of possible bullying. The report ends with the hope that the high school and district can work with the assault victim and his family to rebuild trust so the boy can “have a successful high-school career.”

The parents of the beating victim and the friend who was taunted said they both removed their sons from school. They have not seen the district’s report, but say that seven months after the assault they remain angry over the school’s handling of the incident.

No wonder. When one of the boys’ mothers met with the principal and requested he merely make an announcement about the assault to students and faculty, he refused. Administrators left the suspected attacker attend the same class as the victim. And they warned the boys’ mothers against telling their teachers about the assault because of legal confidentiality rules. And so,

After several months of frustration, the mothers took their concerns to the Snoqualmie Valley School Board which in March ordered the investigation. But Sommers said the investigator did not talk to her or her son, and she remains critical of the district for not addressing the bullying as a factor in the assault.

From there it’s been reduced to he-said she-said. The school says it didn’t know sexuality was a factor in the assault, and claims the boys didn’t tell administrators about the taunts until weeks later. The mothers, meanwhile, did not inform administrators about their taunts.

This is the same high school that, in 2008, saw hundreds of protesters on each side of the Day of Silence debate “clash” outside (see top photo). It happened again in 2009 (see photo, right). In April of this year, the Seattle Times notes, there were no protests. But 432 people, or 30 percent of the student body, skipped. And it’s not getting any better.

George Potratz, a language-arts teacher at Mount Si, said he’s been disciplined twice for standing up for gay students, once when he booed Hutcherson’s appearance as the school’s Dr. Martin Luther King Day speaker in 2008, and again last year when he taught a poem before the Day of Silence by Walt Whitman about the loss of a male lover.

School administrators have done little in the last two years, he said, “to foster student understanding of gay people.” The result, Potratz said, is that some students “feel entitled and empowered to aggressively voice their intolerant attitudes.”

The school has published a response (PDF) to the Times article. It doesn’t get into many specifics, but it assures parents “school administrators and staff immediately attended to the needs of the injured student and worked to gather facts surrounding the incident, which then resulted in appropriate sanctions for those involved.” Further: “Over the past two years, Mount Si High School has initiated a number of activities that focus on respect and diversity. These efforts range from establishing a Diversity and Respect Team (DART) comprised of students, parents, staff and community members; providing staff training; increasing student awareness through presentations and recognition; and ongoing initiatives that center on cultural responsiveness. This is an area we value and have made a priority during the past two years. We intend to continue and expand these efforts in the future.”

[Seattle Times]