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Gay student's troubles unheeded

Parents, student say school refused to stop abuse; superintendent says she didn't know

Phil Garber, Mt. Olive Chronicle, February 14, 2007

MOUNT OLIVE TWP. - James Sharratt remembered what it was like when classmates threw rocks at him on the playground at Mount Olive High School because he was gay.

And he remembers the anger and pain he felt when students would mock him and call him "faggot" or when it was suggested he dress for gym class in the nurse's office and not in the locker room with the other male students.

And he remembers how the counselors at the school said they could do nothing to stop the verbal and physical assaults against him.

Sharratt sat down on Saturday, Feb. 3, with his mother, Rebecca Dressel, and father, Donald, to talk about his experiences. Also sitting in on the interview was Walter Schubert, a founder of the Morris County chapter of the support group, Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays or PFLAG.

In part as a result of James' experiences, PFLAG and several other gay support groups will host a countywide forum "Creating Safe Schools," from 1 a.m. to 3 p.m., Saturday, March 3, at County College of Morris in Randolph Township.

Students, parents, administrators, teachers and clergy are invited to the forum which will focus on educating participants on the harm caused by offensive language and behavior that result in shame and humiliation for lesbians, gays, bisexual and transgender students.

It also will identify how schools can address the needs of gay students. For information, on attending, e-mail to bdressel@optonline.net .

Dire Situation

Sharratt is now 17 and is attending Morris County Vocational and Technical High School to earn a graduate equivalency degree (GED). He left Mount Olive High School in November at the recommendation of a psychologist because he was getting increasingly depressed at the high school.

James said he was 10 when he realized he was gay but that looking back, he said he always knew he was different than the other boys.

He said he told friends of his homosexuality when he was 14 but didn't tell his parents until he was 16 and a junior.

"I was scared to come out," said James, a tall, brown-haired young man. "I thought no one would like me. I thought my mom would kick me out. I thought my friends would stop talking to me and I would be alone for the rest of my life."

Most of the time, James just tried to keep his homosexuality out of his mind.

"I wasn't being honest with anyone," he said. "I had a fake persona."

James first disclosed his homosexuality with a close, female friend while they were at the Rockaway Mall. He told the girl in the course of an otherwise casual conversation.

"She didn't ask any questions," James said. "She knew it was hard enough for me to blurt it out."

As a freshman and sophomore, James had older friends in whom he could confide but that they all graduated by the time he was a junior.

Mrs. Dressel said she first got an inkling of her son's problems when he was in his junior year at the high school. Her concerns heightened after she saw his bio on Myspace.com on the Internet and saw that he had been communicating with a 23-year-old man, with whom he also was having a physical relationship.

Mrs. Dressel said she was more worried about her son's safety than whether he was gay. She later spoke with James and he acknowledged he was homosexual.

The problems in school began for real at the end of his sophomore year and into his junior year.

"That's when people started to use words like fag," James said.

He said that during gym class outside, kids would throw rocks at him and that he would hear people call him names while passing in the hallways.

One time, he was with a friend when a classmate confronted him in a hallway.

"A kid came up and got in my face and started calling me a fag," James said. "My friend kicked him and we walked away. There were always people around and I don't know how the teachers didn't hear it."

At home, James tried to act as if he was doing all right. But one day he couldn't hold it in anymore.

"He finally broke down and told us what was happening with the rocks in gym class," Mrs. Dressel said. "I felt horribly angry. You send your child to school and expect he will be protected."

James and his mother soon brought their concerns at a meeting with a school counselor and social worker. They said they could do nothing unless James could identify those who had assaulted him verbally and with rocks. But James said he feared retribution if he named the students.

"We went to the school and they said they were against bullying but could do nothing without names," Mrs. Dressel said.

"If I gave them names, it would only get worse," James said.

That was the only time Mrs. Dressel met with school officials although she had numerous telephone conversations. She said she regrets not having contacted the principal, Kevin Stansberry but had trusted that the counselors would be able to handle the issue.

James continued attending classes and felt particularly uncomfortable when changing in the locker room for gym class. A teacher suggested he change in the nurse's office but he felt too embarrassed. Instead, at his psychologist's suggestion, James was allowed to withdraw from phys ed classes and take a study hall instead.

Another incident involved a sabotage of a six-page psychology report he had written on the genocide in Rwanda. James said he went to make changes to the report on a school computer and found someone had deleted the file and replaced it with homophobic comments.

"I had to rewrite the entire essay and it was due the next day," James said.

James said he asked his counselor if the school could form a gay support group but was told the school focused more on anti-racism education.

James and his mother brought up their concerns at the meeting with the school social worker and a counselor.

"The first excuse they gave me was that they were supposed to discourage students from coming out in high school," James said.

Mrs. Dressell also said she was told that there was no money in the budget for any new clubs.

As his junior year progressed, James became more outspoken about his homosexuality and was even selected as a school "free spirit" and one of seven students who represented life at the school.

"I asked the teachers why I was nominated and they said it was because I was gay and open about it," James said.

A student later wrote an essay for a local newspaper about the seven students. James said he spoke to the student and talked at length about his homosexuality. But he said he was very disappointed when the story was published and any references to his homosexuality was deleted.

The continuing experiences made James very angry but he didn't know what to do.

"I kept it all inside," he said. "There was nothing I could do. I was so lonely. The minute I stepped in school, I could barely talk."

By November, James was becoming more and more withdrawn and one day Mrs. Dressel got a call from the school counselor.

"She said that when James came to school he felt isolated and fearful," Mrs. Dressel said. "She told me I needed to get him out of school immediately."

In December, his psychologist notified the school that James would be enrolling in the GED program. James now regularly sees friends who attend County College of Morris and since leaving Mount Olive, his life has turned around.

"From the time we took him out of Mount Olive, it was a 180 degree change," said Jamesī father. "The burden is lifted off his shoulders."

School Policy

Schools Superintendent Rosalie Lamonte said the school district has strict anti-bullying policies.

"We don't tolerate bullying and harassment in any way, shape or form," Lamonte said.

But she said the school could not address Jamesī concerns because the matter was not brought to the attention of a school administrator. She also said there was no action against those who taunted James because he would not identify them.

"If a students didn't wish to share information specifically, there is not much we can do to pursue them (other students)," Lamonte said. "If the situation was such that we felt we needed to investigate further, we would have."

Lamonte also said the school counselors were "trying to help (James) deal with his identity crisis."

Lamonte said James had asked the school to create a gay support group. But Lamonte said she understood it would be a PFLAG chapter and that an outside group would not be permitted to recruit members on campus.

"If the students want to start a gay alliance, they certainly could meet on campus," said Lamonte.

Lamonte said the school curriculum doe not directly address gay and lesbian issues but generally talks about "being accepting of differences."

Throughout last year, Mrs. Dressel said she sought support and learned about the PFLAG chapter. She attended her first meeting in January 2006 and has been attending regularly since.

Mrs. Dressel discussed her son's situation at PFLAG meetings and this past October, Schubert wrote to Stansberry and asked for information about the school's anti-bullying program. The letter was copied to board president Anthony Strillacci.

"The purpose of this letter is to request information regarding Mount Olive High School's prevention programs and other initiatives in compliance with the NJ "Anti Bullying" legislation," the letter said. "In particular, I am seeking information regarding those specific programs relating to the prevention of harassment and or bullying of Lesbian, Gay, Bi- Sexual, and Transgender - "LGBT" students."

Schubert received no response to his inquiry.

Lamonte said she recalled the letter but didn't believe it called for a response.

"It seemed to be an inquiry to all schools about gay and lesbian support groups," Lamonte said. "We didn't feel any response was needed."

Lamonte said the district will be sending a representative to the March 3 PFLAG conference. She also said Stansberry will call Mrs. Dressel about her son's situation.

Schubert said PFLAG was formed to connect people, usually parents, to help them understand their emotions and their children.

"Over the last 10 years, I have noticed parents frightened, angry and worried and PFLA helps them feel not alone and to start action," Schubert said. "Becky (Dressel) is a classic example of what PFLAG offers moms and dads."

Schubert said PFLAG tries to help parents understand that often much of the problem has to do with their own preconceptions and less about their childīs issues on being gay.

"I've seen virulent reactions from parents who have a difficult time letting go of their image of how life should unfold," Schubert said. "PFLAG shows the parents that it's more about their issues than their child's."

Schubert, who is gay and helped found the national PFLAG organization, said James showed great courage in talking publicly about his emotions and his concerns.

"He is speaking for all the kids who don't stand up and don't talk to their parents and are isolated," said Schubert. "Nobody should ever have to go through this. It's an awful experience."

Mrs. Dressel said Mount Olive school officials reacted more out of a lack of education than a lack of concern.

"The biggest problem is that the administration, the teachers, the counselors aren't educated," she said. "When there is a problem, they don't know what to do."

Dressel said she hopes Mount Olive educators and many others will attend and benefit form the PFLAG summit in March.

"If I can get them to attend the summit and get programs in the high school, then what happened to James isn't for nothing," Mrs. Dressel said.

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