By James Finn | DETROIT – As reported in numerous media outlets, including The Los Angeles Blade, bullies openly tormented a transgender boy at high school in Berlin, Wisconsin. Berlin students say their friend, who wishes to be identified only as Lucas, has been the subject of frequent taunts and insults, adding that anti-LGBTQ bullying at school is pervasive, harsh and mostly tolerated by teachers and administrators.
They will hear our voices. They will listen to us. And they’re going to do something about it. – Student leader Amber Olmstead
Earlier this month, Lucas’s bullies crossed the line of crime, but local police appear to be protecting them
Lucas says a group of boys crammed him into a toilet stall twice, mocking him as they made him pull down his pants, lift his shirt, and expose his genitals to them. One of the bullies was allegedly filmed from outside the booth on the second occasion.
Lucas was silent at first, crying in class but was too afraid to speak. After friends encouraged him, he reported the criminal bullying to the school administrators, who reported it to the Berlin Police Department. That’s when the story takes a bizarre turn, so bizarre that I called a civil rights lawyer yesterday for his legal opinion.
Any police officer or prosecutor worth his salt would criminalize those who bully a child into pulling his pants down in public.
More information on this phone call in a second. First, the facts. Berlin police say they have investigated and interviewed several witnesses. Within days, they released a statement that shocked many Berlin high school students and some teachers:
“On Thursday, November 4, 2021, a high school student in Berlin reported to school authorities that he had been assaulted in one of the high school toilets.
After being informed, the school administration immediately reported the allegation to the Berlin Police Department. An investigation was immediately opened into the allegation in cooperation with the ministry’s investigation unit. After several interviews and examination of the evidence associated with the alleged assault, our investigation revealed that no physical assault or attack against the alleged victim had taken place.“
When I first saw the police statement, I was disappointed that there was not enough evidence to prove the assault, but something in the wording seemed “incorrect” to me, so I reread it more carefully. That’s when I realized why Lucas’s friends were so shocked, and that’s when I decided to call my lawyer friend.
Before I write about this call, let me tell you why the Berlin students say they are angry. They say every student in high school knows the identity of the boys who assaulted Lucas. They say teachers and administrators know it too. But school officials took no disciplinary action against the boys or taken any steps to keep LGBTQ students safe. In fact, after more than 50 children left school to speak out against administrators’ inaction, the school district issued an apathetic statement that didn’t even mention Transgender or LGBTQ students:
“The Berlin-area school district is aware of a student walkout in response to allegations of assault on students in high school. The Berlin Region School District is committed to ensuring the success of all students in a safe learning environment and we take these allegations seriously. The school district is cooperating with local law enforcement agencies who are investigating this situation. The district is also conducting its own investigation. Due to ongoing investigations, the district is unable to provide further details at this time.“
Amber Olmstead, the Berlin high school student who organized the walkout, told WGBA-TV 26 that students were fed up with administrators tolerating anti-LGBTQ harassment:
“We told them we weren’t backing down this time. They will hear our voices. They will listen to us. And they’re going to do something about it.
She and other students met with administrators in the days following the protest, but to date the school district has issued nothing more than its original innocuous statement and has not announced any policies aimed at protect LGBTQ students targeted by bullies. Students say Lucas’s bullies still haven’t been disciplined, even though everyone at school knows exactly who they are.
Berlin police lie, telling partial truth
Police do not say the lack of evidence prevents them from laying charges. Read their statement carefully. They say unequivocally that no aggression took place. They say that no matter how much evidence they have already gathered or may collect in the future, the facts do not support the allegations of criminal assault.
I picked up the phone yesterday and contacted a lawyer friend with a busy civil rights practice in Detroit. I asked him if the Berlin police were legally correct in claiming that no one had assaulted Lucas. Here is a partial transcript of our call, starting with my question a few minutes in:
– Are you kidding me? I mean, do you agree that no assault took place even though the facts are as alleged?
– No, Jim. I say I don’t know. I’m not a criminal lawyer and I don’t practice in Wisconsin, but that’s what the Berlin police say in their statement, so it’s probably true to some extent.
– It’s crazy! How wouldn’t forcing a child to undress almost naked be criminal?
– Of course it’s criminal! It may not be simple assault as defined in Wisconsin laws, although I suspect it would be in Michigan. This police statement… is so disturbing because it seems the police are lying by telling partial truth. Any police officer or prosecutor … worthy of the name would criminalize anyone who bullied a child into pulling his pants down in public … whether it was assault or something else. Off the top of my head, the child pornography charges might stick. As long as there is enough evidence to support the claims, of course.
– What would you do if you were Lucas or their parent?
– I’ll call Lambda Legal and the ACLU. They live for cases like this. I would threaten to sue the pants against the Berlin police department and the school district. If 50 children have to leave school for such a serious incident to be taken seriously, then …
– What would you do if you did?
So okay, I don’t specialize in LGBTQ school stuff, but if it was me and my company, we would probably go after the district for clear violations… of Title IX. If what these student organizers claim is even somewhat true, then the district faces a substantial monetary liability, which I would explain in terms that would blow them up. But you know that’s how I ride.
Anti-LGBTQ harassment is on the rise in American schools, and this case shows just how apathy can be at the root of the problem
The Trevor Project has just released a comprehensive survey that shows more than half of LGBTQ students in the United States face significant bullying, with rates rising rather than falling over the past 4 years. Rates of LGBTQ teens considering suicide (already several times higher than among their cis / straight peers) have risen dramatically this year, and research from the Trevor Project indicates that rising bullying rates are one of the factors. causes. (The researchers cite the growing political resentment as another.)
Students at Berlin High School, located in a predominantly conservative, mostly rural community, say they face as much hostility from adults to LGBTQ issues as they do apathy to bullying. The students are angry with the two, but they are not surprised.
I am not either.
Together, the actions of the school district and the police department appear to be a coordinated effort to sweep serious criminal sexual assault under the rug. Thanks to Amber Olmstead and other student activists – and especially thanks to Lucas for coming forward and allowing his first name and photo to be published – the district and the police department will likely be held to account… this time around .
But in the United States, especially in rural areas like Berlin, LGBTQ students face active hostility from bullies and struggle to find support from the adults tasked with protecting them.
As a recent article in JAMA Pediatrics demonstrated, “suing them” is really good advice. Prosecutions have been shown to be as statistically effective as official anti-bullying programs, significantly more effective in conservative areas where adults are hostile to LGBTQ people.
I am shocked that Lucas went through what he went through and I am outraged that the adults who run his school do not care enough about protecting him. But anger is not enough. Action is required.
Do you want to know how you can act? Read the following story on three effective ways to tackle anti-LGBTQ bullying in schools in your community. (Link here)
James Finn is a former Air Force intelligence analyst, longtime LGBTQ activist, Queer Nation and Act Up NY alumnus, regular columnist for queer media and an “agent” but unpublished novelist. . Send questions, comments and story ideas to [email protected]
The previous article was previously published by Prism & Pen – Amplifying LGBTQ Voices Through Storytelling and is republished with permission.