Safe Schools? 

After a rash of suicides nationwide by gay teens, locals speak out about bullying.

Memphian Trevor Rush wasn't even "out" when he was targeted by bullies at Craigmont Middle School. Now 24 years old, Rush was punched and kicked and had wet toilet paper thrown at him repeatedly in middle school.

"One time, this guy was yelling at me and calling me faggot, and I wouldn't answer him, so he squirted a mayonnaise packet in my face. The teachers wouldn't even do anything about it," said Rush, who eventually left the school system in the eighth grade after being beaten for appearing gay.

Rush's case is not an isolated one.

After a recent rash of suicides nationwide by gay teens who have been bullied, the Memphis Gay & Lesbian Community Center held a public forum last week about the ongoing problem of anti-gay bullying in city, county, and private schools.

At the forum, Lynda Sagrestano, director of the University of Memphis' Center for Research on Women, said 26 percent of the almost 600 local middle and high school students surveyed in 2007 and 2008 reported having been called gay or lesbian by another student.

"The ultimate insult is to question somebody's masculinity. Boys and girls are doing this as an insult, and it doesn't even matter whether or not they think someone is gay," Sagrestano said.

Memphian Diane Thornton spoke at the forum about her son William who was bullied at a charter school, which Thornton did not name, when he was 14 and 15 years old. Thornton said her son experienced "a series of small events," such as name-calling or pulling on his backpack, that added up over time. Before he left that school, another student slammed him against a table.

Like Rush, William transferred from that school. William had not identified himself as gay, but Thornton said kids picked on him because "he's not a real macho guy and he's very respectful. He was perceived as an outsider."

"When a kid comes home and says, 'I hate school and I'm not going back, because they're all mean to me,' it means that school is not safe, and the child may not be able to express what's going on," Thornton said.

According to Memphis City Schools policy, reported incidents of harassment are fully investigated, and MCS provides counseling to students free of charge. Rush and Diane Thornton both said the administrators at the schools were not helpful or responsive when approached about the bullying.

At least one Memphis school — Kingsbury High School — is hoping to do a better job at curbing anti-gay bullying. Last February, English teacher Ian Smith founded a gay-straight alliance for students at Kingsbury.

"I've seen kids show up to meetings that I've never seen before. We've even had straight-identified basketball players come to multiple meetings," Smith said. "If we can do this at Kingsbury, there's no reason another school can't do it."

Tim Smith, a former Marine kicked out of the military under the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy, announced that the University of Memphis is starting a Safe Zone project to help university faculty and staff respond to bullying on campus.

"We think that once kids turn 17 they're safe, but these highly publicized suicides have shown that [bullying] is a danger to college kids as well," Tim Smith said, referring to the September suicide of Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi.

Rush considered suicide after being assaulted in eighth grade, but his life improved dramatically after he began home-schooling.

"Things really did get better after I left that environment," Rush said. "If bullying were squashed, there'd be a lot more happy people in school."

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