Cover Story

Bullied to Death

Opponents of an anti-bullying bill say it promotes a gay agenda.' But families of victims demand a change in how Louisiana schools handle bullies. By Alex Woodward

Tieler Garsaud, a sixth-grader at Abita Springs Middle School, testified before Louisiana's House of Representatives last year. Up for a vote: an anti-bullying bill dubbed the Safe Schools Act, authored by state Rep. Austin Badon, D-New Orleans. Garsaud, 12, who came out as gay to his parents at age 10, told lawmakers that all students, not just gay students, deserve to feel safe in school. Badon's bill failed to pass.

Opponents of an anti-bullying bill say it promotes a gay agenda.' But families of victims demand a change in how Louisiana schools handle bullies. By Alex Woodward

[Editor's Note: For a local perspective on bullying and anti-bullying legislation before the Legislature, read our interview with Forum for Equality's Colin Miller at the end of this story.]

Tieler Garsaud, a sixth-grader at Abita Springs Middle School, testified before Louisiana's House of Representatives last year. Up for a vote: an anti-bullying bill dubbed the Safe Schools Act, authored by state Rep. Austin Badon, D-New Orleans. Garsaud, 12, who came out as gay to his parents at age 10, told lawmakers that all students, not just gay students, deserve to feel safe in school. Badon's bill failed to pass.

"I was bullied a lot, in fourth and fifth [grade], but [I saw] other people get bullied a lot, like the special kids, and not the cool kids. Everyone below' that," Garsaud says. "Middle school is a shark tank: Cool, smart, dumb. That's how they do it." He says he was inspired to speak out after watching others get bullied - and getting bullied himself.

Garsaud will be back this year. State Rep. Pat Smith, D-Baton Rouge, has introduced House Bill 407, the Bullying Prevention Act of 2012. An identical Senate version, authored by Sens. Yvonne Dorsey-Colomb, D-Baton Rouge, and Rick Ward, D-Port Allen, was filed two weeks ago.

The bills aim to protect students of all backgrounds and identities, making it easier to report instances of bullying on campus and online. The bill has the support of the Forum for Equality, the Orleans Parish School Board, the Louisiana School Boards Association, the Louisiana Association of Educators, the Louisiana School Counselors Association, the National Alliance on Mental Illness-Louisiana, the National Association of Social Workers-Louisiana, the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools and the East Bank Collaborative of Charter Schools, among others.

But some groups, chiefly the Louisiana Family Forum, oppose the bill, saying it promotes a "gay agenda" and forces the teaching of what it calls alternative lifestyles. LFF is a non-profit organization with stated religious goals but which functions largely as a lobbying group for evangelical conservative values. It is a powerful voice in the state Capitol.

Garsaud lifts his green-armed glasses from his face and wipes tears from his eyes with the neck of his shirt. He says he has his "amazing" days at school, but they're often cut short by his peers who harass him for his sexual orientation. Facebook messages from students have threatened Garsaud with violence - shoving his head through a window, or "I will f-king kill you."

Abita Springs Middle School studentTieler Garsand, 12, says he is often the
target of bullying because he's gay.

"He says it's exhausting, it wears you out," says his mother, Tahmi Hawsey. "You don't know what to expect on any given day. He's popular - it's not like he's not popular; it's not that he doesn't have a ton of friends. ... Walking through the halls, a kid tells him, Hey, Tieler, want to be my boyfriend?' and laughs in his face and follows him in the bathroom.

"And he doesn't know what's going to happen in the bathroom."

Last year, Mother Jones reported a "teen epidemic of suicide" in Rep. Michele Bachmann's small Minnesota district, where, in a two-year span, nine children committed suicide - four of whom were gay or perceived as gay. All had been bullied. Rolling Stone followed up the story earlier this year, adding that the school district "[cultivated] an extreme anti-gay climate."

Smith says stories like these inspired her to introduce her bill this year. "We just don't have a means of dealing with bullying on campuses, not a structured means," she says. "I'd like to see us be more proactive in intervention, and that's what the professional development [element of the bill] would provide - opportunities for recognition of bullying, and provide intervention. It's for training teachers and administrators to recognize when a child comes to you about bullying that it's taken seriously."

In 2008, Tesa Middlebrook moved from Omaha, Neb., to Point Coupee Parish in the wake of her parents' divorce. After her mother died of cancer last year, she moved in with her grandmother Joan Derson. The 17-year-old Point Coupee Central High School student excelled in school. She had a 3.9 GPA and was bound for college in Arizona, says her uncle, Michael Derson. "She was an artist, she taught herself to play piano, she taught herself to play guitar," he recalls.

On March 2, a school day, a coach found Middlebrook hanging from the school's football bleachers. She had tied one end of an electrical cord to the side of the bleachers and the other around her neck. The Point Coupee Sheriff's office says she died sometime around midday. Her grandmother called the school to find out why Middlebrook didn't get off the bus. Her uncle, a part-time police officer for the City of New Roads, arrived at the school at 5:30 p.m.

"We just don't have a means of dealing with bullying on campuses, not a structured means."

- State Rep. Pat Smith, D-Baton Rouge

"How in the world can a 3.9 GPA student that doesn't cause any problems in her school not go to any classes after lunch, and nobody checked to find out where this kid is at?" he says. "That's our issue right here."

Michael Derson says Middlebrook was the victim of bullying "on a daily basis - she's walking down the hallway, they'll knock her books on the floor, shoving, calling her names."

Point Coupee Sheriff's Office Public Information Officer Capt. Steven Juge says the only cases of bullying the sheriff's office found at the school were two incidents that happened "way before this," which were both handled by the school. As of press time, the sheriff's office hadn't produced any evidence of bullying cases prior to Tesa's suicide. But her family is adamant: she was the target of bullies. "We have testimony from several kids, text messages - we've got a whole bunch of stuff," Derson says. "You can see it in her artwork. It doesn't take a genius to figure it out."

Last year, Badon's anti-bullying legislation passed the House Education Committee 8-4 after debate between bill supporters and social conservatives like the LFF. The bill died on the House floor, after opponents deleted mentions of "race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity or expression, physical characteristic, political persuasion, mental disability, or physical disability, as well as attire or association with others identified by such categories."

State Rep. Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport, contended that the bill "was intended to promote an agenda and force teaching alternative lifestyles to our children."

"It's a sad day in Louisiana," Badon said later. "For us to sit here and say that the conservative, religious right is going to dictate to us how we're going to vote, I'm embarrassed by that."

In an editorial two weeks ago, The Shreveport Times, which publishes in Seabaugh's district, endorsed Smith's bill, writing that it would "empower teachers who might want to act but are reluctant to buck administrators who fear controversy or who have their own prejudicial blind spots." The paper added that the bill "enumerates protection for students with physical or developmental disabilities, emotional health disorders, problems with language ability, differing political ideas or affiliations or those who associate with any of these students."

In a 2011 email he sent to constituent Debbie Buchanan Engle, who wrote the lawmaker to express her disapproval of his vote, Seabaugh wrote, "There are currently 28 laws, statutes and regulations in Louisiana which prohibit bullying. This bill added nothing except to open our schools to the teaching of the LGBT agenda. I have studied the teachings of Jesus Christ and I agree with his teachings regarding homosexuality. It is a sin plain and simple and it does not need to be taught in our schools. I was taught long ago to avoid getting into a debate with an idiot."

"When you introduce a category of protection that doesn't have a clear legal definition, how do you administer that law in equitable fashion?"
- Rev. Gene Mills, Louisiana Family Forum

Forty-seven states currently have anti-bullying legislation on the books - including Louisiana. But Louisiana's present law doesn't address categories of protection, including students' sexual orientation or gender identity. More than a dozen states, from California to most of New England, have strengthened anti-bullying laws by adding specific categories of protection.

Last year, New Jersey adopted its "Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights" following the 2010 suicide of 18-year-old Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi. Clementi jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge after a fellow student installed a webcam in his dorm room, got footage of him kissing another man and spread the word on Twitter.

Some haven't been willing to wait for state legislation. The Trevor Project, founded by the producers of the 1994 short film Trevor (about a 13-year-old who attempts suicide when his classmates discover he is gay), operates a 24-hour crisis line that has received more than 200,000 calls since 1998. This year, the documentary Bully - which follows several students and their experiences with bullying - has made headlines for its R rating, which some say keeps it from the very audience that needs to see it. The film has received support from Anderson Cooper and Johnny Depp, among others, who have petitioned the Motion Picture Association of America to give it a more teen-friendly rating. It opened in New York and Los Angeles March 30.

Tens of thousands of people have uploaded "It Gets Better" messages to YouTube after columnist and gay activist Dan Savage founded the campaign in 2010. He launched the project after reports of spikes in teen suicides. President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and dozens of celebrities, including Ellen DeGeneres, have also uploaded their own "It Gets Better" messages. In his video, Obama says, "We've got to dispel this myth that bullying is just a normal rite of passage, that it's some inevitable part of growing up. It's not."

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees submitted his own anti-bullying message (independent of the "It Gets Better" campaign), saying, "I want my fans to know that if you're making fun of someone because they're different, then you are no friend of mine."

The numbers are stark. In 2009, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 20 percent of high school students said they were bullied at school. Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network surveyed more than 7,000 American junior high and high school students in 2009 and found more than 84 percent of LGBT students reported verbal harassment at school, 40 percent reported physical harassment, and 18 percent reported physical attacks. While only 8 percent of all students said they'd missed classes because of concerns for their physical safety, the number of LGBT students who had done so was 30 percent.

"Our kids need to feel safe in school, and there are some who don't," Rep. Smith says. Badon, who signed on as a co-author of this year's bill, agrees: "Schools must be completely safe. They can't have any prejudice or discrimination."

Orleans Parish School Board President Thomas Robichaux, one of the few openly gay elected officials in Louisiana, says the bill is his "personal crusade."

"Having a general anti-bullying law, such as we have now, is statistically the same as having no law at all," Robichaux says. "The enumerations in the law are the only way that children actually become more protected from the abuse of bullying.

"This is not just about kids fighting in the schoolyard, nor solely about saving the lives of the direct victims. This is also about changing the culture of violence in our society and breaking the cycle of hate and violence that lies at the root of our crime problems. We cannot arrest ourselves out of our crime problem; we can only educate ourselves out of our crime problem."

Louisiana Family Forum Director Rev. Gene Mills says that categorizing potential victims creates "winners and losers." This year, LFF is drafting its own version of an anti-bullying measure. Mills says Smith's bill, with its inclusion of what he says are "legally undefined characteristics or character qualities" (read: sexual identities) excludes others "by virtue of the fact they're omitted."

"When you introduce a category of protection that doesn't have a clear legal definition, how do you administer that law in equitable fashion?" Mills says. "It's better to have no measure than to have one that ties us up in litigation and confuses the school system and kids [and] move forward with the long, potentially confusing litigation."

In a recent newsletter to its supporters, LFF wrote: "There is no doubt about it; the bullying' theme is agenda-driven propaganda. The irony is that groups like Forum for Equality and GLSEN have chosen this issue to bully you and me into allowing them access into our schools and to our children. To express concerns about anti-bullying bills is portrayed in the most unfavorable light."

"Do we have a duty to prevent bullying? Absolutely," Mills says. "And we all share it, and everyone agrees that it needs to be prevented. Do we have an obligation to accept a sexually charged political agenda to accomplish that? I think that becomes an unnecessary detour in the case against bullying."

Garsaud offers a different take.

"I think everybody has gotten picked on for something," the 12-year-old says. "If [the bill's opponents] have a child, what if he gets bullied? Then you pretty much stop that bill from helping him.

"But [the bill's authors] put that one word in there to stop it, and they're against it."

Two weeks before she shot and killed herself on Aug. 22, 2011, 14-year-old Slidell High School student Savannah Robinson wrote one of her last Facebook updates: "I refuse to go back to school."

Recently, Savannah's mother Angele McKnight sat in her kitchen with Savannah's father, Jamahl Robinson. The kitchen is sparse, much like the rest of the Slidell home where McKnight and her two sons moved after Savannah's death. Savannah, whom her parents describe as smart, quiet, creative and energetic, would have turned 15 on April 1.

McKnight left for work early on the morning of her daughter's suicide. Savannah was entering the third week of her freshman year. She told her mom that she was still getting dressed - she had to put on her shoes and contact lenses - before she would be ready to leave with her brother. He left to pick up his friend around the corner. When they came back five minutes later, Savannah was dead, with a handgun next to her body.

State Rep. Austin Badon, D - New Orleans, is co-author of the anti-bullying legislation.

Later that day, Facebook pages lit up with messages of support. "The kids found out what happened and started doing this Facebook page," McKnight says, "and started posting, I knew she was being bullied,' and It's a shame children mess with her like that.' That's how we started finding out more and more information that started coming out."

McKnight says Savannah had visited a school counselor the Thursday before she died but left feeling uncomfortable. "She said something," McKnight says. "I don't know what she told that counselor."

McKnight noticed a change in Savannah's behavior while her daughter was still in middle school - she would come home saying, "I hate school." In her first weeks of high school, she received a detention for not dressing out for P.E. "She never made it to that detention," McKnight says.

The family says it hasn't received any information about her death or evidence of bullying from the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff's Office or from Slidell High School. The entire school community has been quiet, McKnight says. The police report regarding Savannah's death outlines the events of that morning, and St. Tammany Parish Coroner Peter Galvan ruled her death a suicide. Yet, Slidell High School didn't host a memorial or offer condolences to the family, McKnight says. "Everybody went back to whatever they were doing," she says.

Savannah's motive for committing suicide remains unclear, but McKnight says she was able to retrieve a handful of text messages from her daughter's phone. "To me, it seemed like she liked girls. I'm not 100 percent sure about that," she says. "Those text messages seemed so out of character for her. She wasn't talking about guys. This was strictly talking about girls. I'm assuming that might have been a part of it."

Given the LFF's influence among state lawmakers, Badon and Smith don't know what to expect from their colleagues this year. "This is a strange body," Badon says. "I hope my colleagues would say, We got to do something more'. We have a moral responsibility to this exploding issue."

Smith points out, with a laugh, that she has filed two controversial bills - the "bully bill" and a sex education reform bill. Already there's opposition to both. "If you're familiar with the Bible, the Lord looked at individuals who were very, very different and took them under His wing," she says. "Jesus didn't discriminate."

The Bullying Prevention Act has been referred to the House Education Committee. As of press time, the measure had not yet been assigned a hearing date.

A version of this story was first published in New Orleans' Gambit.

'The biggest impediment to all progress in Louisiana is the Louisiana Family Forum'

Lafayette resident Colin Miller is the southern field director for New Orleans-based Forum for Equality, an LGBT civil rights advocacy group, and serves as a lobbyist for the organization at the Legislature. The Ind asked Miller for his perspective on bullying and legislation that addresses it during the current legislative session.

Colin Miller

INDEPENDENT: Why is it important to have references to sexual orientation/gender identity in this anti-bullying bill? Opponents of the language say current anti-bullying laws already cover sexual orientation.

COLIN MILLER: It is important to list all characteristics which may put children at a higher risk of being bullied in school.  Current law doesn't do this.  Current state law also exempts six parishes from the requirement to have anti-bullying policies in schools.  This exemption is absurd and unacceptable, and the bill I am supporting this session (House Bill 407 by Rep. Patricia Smith) does away with it. All kids have a right to a safe learning environment, and right now, many of our children are being denied that right. If we have anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies for adults in the workplace that include characteristics such as gender, race, disabilities or religion, then why don't we have policies for our kids that follow the same principle? It doesn't make sense, and our legislators need to do their jobs and protect our kids.

IND: What is the biggest impediment to getting the legislation passed?

CM: The biggest impediment to all progress in Louisiana is the Louisiana Family Forum, which is an extremist, right-wing hate group that wants to politicize anti-bullying policy and make it into an argument about "gays" rather than a dialogue about protecting our children.

IND: Is Louisiana ready to recognize the LGBT community as a common thread in our civic fabric?

CM: You know, I really believe that people in Louisiana are good and tolerant people, but when I see mean and hateful people like Gene Mills of the Family Forum holding puppet strings over our legislators, it makes me feel less optimistic.

IND: How have you as a lobbyist for Forum for Equality been received by the lawmakers you're lobbying?

CM: Legislators are always kind and polite to me and the people in my organization, but time and again, many of them vote for discriminatory laws and against measures that would protect our children and the hard-working people of this state. It just seems like many of them aren't listening.  For instance, Sen. [A.G.] Crowe put forward a bill that passed through the Senate Labor Committee last Thursday that would allow charter schools to discriminate against students and staff on the basis of things like athletic achievement and veteran status. It's called Senate Bill 217, and I can't believe that stuff like that is even being put forward in this state when we need to be talking about getting people back to work and improving our roads and bridges.