After Trans Student Shot, Catholic School Shifts Course

A British Catholic school is attempting to make itself a safer space after a transgender girl student was shot with a BB gun by another student. Though the school has responded with some positive steps, this horrifying incident is a reminder of the urgency with which Catholic education needs to become safer for LGBT students.

safe-schools_0A transgender girl in Manchester, England, was shot by a classmate after months of severe bullying, and just two days after the girl’s mother met with school officials about a previous bullying incident.

G, a pseudonym for the 11-year-old girl, had endured five months of harrassment and threats, according to her mother, identified as A. Gay Star News reported:

“Last Monday, G’s mother A was called into school following a ‘distressing’ incident [wherein students had written a series of anti-transgender slurs on her notebook, which we have chosen to omit here]. . .

“The previous day, A said she had sent an email to staff about the escalating bullying. While she was bullied a little at primary, it got a lot worse when she joined secondary school. And she believes that email was ignored.

“‘Pupils have thrown water over her, spat at her, and kicked her to the ground. Not a day goes by without her being attacked, insulted or threatened with violence,’ her mother said.”

A said she told school officials that “something bad was going to happen,” and she faulted them for doing little to intervene against the bullying. When G was shot, her mother said the school did not notify A for over an hour. When she arrived at school, A found her daughter “extremely quiet, just shaking and not speaking.”

Though the physical harm was minimal, the emotional wounds of these incidents have left G in pain. She is unable to sleep because of nightmares, and she has vocalized thoughts about suicide. The family is seeking supports for her. A explained that it has been very clear since her daughter’s coming out that they would need to work hard to ensure G does not become one of the many transgender youth who die prematurely from violence or by suicide.

The Catholic school, which has gone unnamed in news reports, is now taking steps to educate students and staff towards creating a safer environment, reported the Manchester Evening News. The headteacher said the student who fired the BB gun has been expelled. In a statement, the headteacher said:

“The victim is a transgender pupil and sadly there have been incidents of bullying before this latest incident. We have worked with our pupils to respect and accept people of different sexual orientation and identities and will continue to do this. We have enlisted the support of a national organisation to help us further with our training of staff and pupils and support for our transgender pupils. We have met with the parents of the pupil to apologise and to see what we can do further as a school.”

These efforts have included inviting Stonewall, an LGBT organization in England, to do trainings for members of the school community. But school officials should not stop there or lessen their commitment to LGBT students. The mother was clear that the intense bullying G experienced is because of her gender, saying, “It is a hate of who she is and it is awful.”

At least one other British Catholic school has worked with Stonewall, the United Kingdom’s leading LGBT equality group, to make schools safer.  As Bondings 2.0 noted when we reported this news in 2013, such a relationship between a religious group and a secular group is a model for how the Church and the LGBT community could work together.

On a related note, a transgender student Mason Catrambone, who was rejected by a Catholic high school in New Jersey last year, recently began classes at a public school that welcomes him.

During National Catholic Schools Week in January, we featured an Australian gay man who thanked his Catholic school for helping him come out and feel affirmed. While this is not the experience of many LGBT Students, and certainly G has suffered greatly at a Catholic school, it is helpful to remember that the church’s education programs can be a source of tremendous good if done in welcoming and affirming ways.

For now, let us pray that G finds healing and can return, as she hopes to do, to her Catholic school — a place where, increasingly, every student is safe, welcomed, and affirmed.

New Ways Ministry’s Eighth National Symposium, “Justice and Mercy Shall Kiss:  LGBT Catholics in the Age of Pope Francis.” will include a focus session on, “Youth, Young Adult Ministry, and LGBT Questions,” led by campus minister and researcher Michael Maher.  We will also host a focus session on “Transgender and Intersex Identities and the Family,” featuring Deacon Ray Dever, Lexi Dever, and Nicole Santamaria. The symposium is scheduled for April 28–30, 2017, in Chicago.  For more information, click here.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, February 9, 2017

In Wake of Student’s Suicide, Catholic Parents Call for Safe Schools

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Daniel Fitzpatrick

Catholic parents of LGBT children are expressing their sorrow over a teenager’s suicide in New York, as well as their commitment to ensuring Catholic education is safe for all students.

Daniel Fitzpatrick died by suicide on August 11, having faced intense bullying from classmates at Holy Angels Catholic Academy in Brooklyn. He left a note in which Fitzpatrick said, “I gave up. The teachers didn’t do anything. . .I wanted to get out.”

The Board of Fortunate Families, an organization by and for Catholic parents of LGBT children, released a statement on Monday saying it was “saddened to hear” about Fitzpatrick’s death:

“We on the board of Fortunate Families are painfully aware that any child who is badgered and bullied is at greater risk for isolation, marginalization, depression, and sadly, suicide. Catholic Social Teaching holds that all of our children are persons who deserve life, dignity, respect and the freedom to live their potential to the fullest. All our children deserve to be educated in environments that embody that social teaching.”

A board member who lost a child to suicide acknowledged that suicide is the second leading cause of death in young adults and that suicides are deeply painful for the families and communities left behind. As they bury their son and brother, the Fitzpatrick family is considering, too, how to end bullying. A crowdfunding page which sought to raise money for unexpected funeral expenses has now raised more than $120,000. The family said they wish to use these funds to “give Daniel a proper memorial, as well as shine a bright light on the bullying that killed him. . .and allow for his legacy to live on.”

The student’s father, Daniel Fitzpatrick, posted a heart-wrenching video to Facebook. He spoke lovingly about his son, and affirmed his own commitment to intervene against bullying if he encounters it, including against LGBT youth:

“No parent should have to bury their child. No child should have to go through what my son went through. . .Bullying unfortunately is an epidemic. It ain’t right. . .If I ever see any child in my life from now on and I witness them and I see doesn’t matter if its boy, girl, straight, bi, transgender now. If they’re bullied, I will knock them out.”

Though Fitzpatrick did not identify as an LGBT person as far as anyone knew (he was bullied about his weight and his grades), his death is a moment for Catholic educators to reflect on the myriad ways in which schools are made unsafe. This includes problems for students of diverse sexual and gender identities, and students who may be questioning their identities. The Fortunate Families Board continued:

“We call on all involved in Catholic education to re-double efforts to prevent bullying and assist each child to reach their full potential, regardless of physical attributes, academic achievements or other characteristics which may make a student seem ‘different.’

“Although too late for Daniel, we are glad to see that the Brooklyn Diocese is re-examining its bullying prevention policies and training, and we pray that these also apply to students bullied because of their gender identity or sexual orientation.”

Catholic education intends to form young people through faith to live flourishing lives, and to live authentically as themselves in service to others. As such, the church’s educational ministries should be sanctuaries for young people to come to know themselves, discern deep questions, and feel God’s love. Mercy and inclusion should be the hallmarks of every Catholic school. Earlier this week, educator Kevin Welbes Godin of Egale Canada wrote about the work Ontario’s teachers have done to create safer Catholic schools for LGBT students.

That good work is happening elsewhere, but is not widespread enough yet, and it is not happening quickly enough. As another school year begins, and we pray for Daniel Fitzpatrick and his family, let us each consider how we – as parents, as students, as teachers, as alumni, and as the faithful – might contribute so that Catholic education is safer and more inclusive of all God’s children.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

 

On Spirit Day, Catholics Chart New Course for LGBT Youth

SpiritDay13_Graphic_FinalToday is Spirit Day. Millions across the nation will wear purple as a sign of their of their love and support for LGBT youth and for their opposition to bullying. We join GLAAD, the main sponsoring organization, in spreading this message of inclusion and well-being.

LGBT teens and young adults suffer greatly from bullying by peers in person and, increasingly, on the internet. Homo- and trans-phobic harassment against youth leads to vastly higher rates of substance abuse, self-harm, and suicide than the general population.

Rejection from their faith community and religious-based discrimination only compound these problems. For Catholics, Spirit Day is also prime moment for reflection on our Church’s progress and where we are now headed in ministering to younger people with diverse sexual orientations and gender identities.

Last October, . Jesuit Fr. James Martin’s piece on Spirit Day was considered a bold statement, when he reminded Catholics of a prevalent negativity around Catholic LGBT issues from some quarters of the church:

“Many gay and lesbian Catholics have told me (in person, in emails, in notes and letters and in Facebook messages) how alienated they have felt from the church lately.  Perhaps as a result of some of the rhetoric that has been used recently, an increasing number of gay and lesbian Catholics, and gay and lesbian youth in particular, feel marginalized from the church in which they were baptized.”

Fear, hurt, and isolation persist for many LGBT Catholics who experienced decades of damaging language and actions.  Pope Francis, though, has prompted a spirit of renewal that blows through our communities which demands that we act against anti-gay discrimination, especially when it targets youth.

One bright initiative is called Anti-Bullying Learning and Teaching Resources (ALTER), sponsored by the Diocese of Wollongong, Australia. Responding to the rapid rise in bullying through cell phones and social media, the diocese’s Catholic Education Office produced a video (which you can view below) and a resource kit for adults in leadership.

Of note is the use of the word “gay” in the video, revealing an openness to the realities of the students it hopes to help. The Office explains:

“Fix You was deliberately designed to include significant contribution from Diocesan primary and secondary students. To maintain the integrity of this concept, when asked to list words commonly used to bully and to hurt, students were adamant the word ‘gay’ be included. In explanation, it was our students’ reality that this word was often used as a weapon and that verbal bullying was an experience known to most students. Consequently, this term has been included in the sequence of words depicting how bullying brands someone and how this can leave lifelong scars.”

The Office provides an improved commentary on homosexuality that focuses on respecting people’s dignity and ending injustice. They recommend that educators use the word “gay” in their classroom discussions.

This Spirit Day, Pope Francis’ handful of olive branches to the LGBT community has changed the tone by his comment “Who am I to judge?“, his America interview, or his handwritten note to gay Catholics in Italy. Leaders in the American hierarchy have been slow to follow his lead, but the Catholic laity  continue to advance into greater inclusion.

As Catholics, we at New Ways Ministry support Spirit Day, compelled by our faith to end bullying and sustain LGBT youth as they come to know themselves, their community, and God.  We’ve changed our profile picture on Facebook to purple in honor of Spirit Day, and we invite you to do the same as a sign of support.  If you use Twitter, consider using #SpiritDay in your tweets about support for LGBT youth today.

Why not share the graphic above with your friends on Facebook? You can copy and paste it from this post or you can find it on the New Ways Ministry Facebook page.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

NEWS NOTES: August 19, 2013

News NotesHere are some items that may be of interest:

1) Using hyperbolic language, the Catholic bishops in England released a document responding to that nation’s passage of marriage equality earlier this year. The document reiterated common messages from the hierarchy, while adding new concepts about Catholics being alienated in their own country because of the new law. You can read more at The Catholic Register. Marriage equality in England has at least one columnist asking if the Catholic Church should remove itself from marriage altogether.

2) Responding to the firing of educator Carla Hale this spring for marrying her wife, one set of Catholic parents began wondering about a Catholic burial for their gay son. While several Catholic officials and funeral directors assured them the institution denies a Catholic burial in only the most extreme instances, these parents remain dissatisfied. Alternatively, one gay Catholic man told The Columbus Dispatch: ” ‘One place the Catholic Church is really, really, really nice about is death.’ ”

3)In the African nation of Cameroon, more anti-gay prosecutions and the seeming assassination of prominent advocate Eric Lembembe caused LGBT rights organizations to demand better conditions from the civil and religious authorities in Cameroon who support homophobic language and acts. LGBT advocates said in a statement reported by France 24: ” ‘The religious authorities, the Cameroonian Roman Catholic Church in particular, take a position on homosexuality in order to incite violence,’ ” Cameroon, where about a quarter of the population are Catholic, is one of the worst nations for LGBT rights.

4) A Michigan high school student won a lawsuit in which he claimed his First Amendment rights were violated during a 2010 classroom interaction. The student claimed his Catholic faith did not allow him to accept LGBT people, and was then written up by his teacher for disruptive behavior. Some observers in Education Week believe this case could have broader implications in the tension over free speech in schools and anti-bullying policies that seek to protect sexual orientation and gender identity.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

London School Is a Model for Church and LGBT Community Working Together

A story from London, England, offers a model of how Catholic schools and LGBT-rights group can  help each other out, all to the students’ benefit.

St. Mary's Catholic Primary School
St. Mary’s Catholic Primary School

London’s Evening Standard reports that Sarah Crouch, headteacher of St. Mary’s Catholic Primary School, Wimbledon, invited Stonewall, the United Kingdom’s premier LGBT-rights group, to give the school’s teachers a lesson in how to eliminate homophobic bullying. Crouch said:

“We want to give our staff the tools to know what to do should an incident of homophobic bullying occur…It is important that children know it is not OK to use the word gay in a derogatory way.”

This positive action was not without controversy, however, as some people felt it was inappropriate for a Catholic school to bring in advisers from the LGBT community.  The Standard reports:

“Antonia Tully, national coordinator of the Safe at School campaign, said: ‘Many parents will be very concerned that a gay rights organisation is considered to be an appropriate source of advice on how to deal with children using inappropriate language in the playground.

“ ‘If a primary school takes on Stonewall’s agenda, young children will be exposed to homosexual issues, which they are too young to understand properly. Parents expect a school to provide an education, not subject their children to gay propaganda.’ ”

But Tully’s comments, exaggeratedly alarmist, ignore the facts of this case:

“Ms Crouch said that children were not involved in the training, which was carried out for teachers on one day in September.

“She added that Stonewall’s programme was tailored specifically for the Catholic school and did not mention same sex relationships or gay marriage. It concentrated on how teachers should tackle incidents of homophobic bullying.”

Boston’s Edge newspaper notes that the program, in fact, was approved by the local diocese:

“The authorities of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Southwark and all but one of the governors approved the event. Now, St. Mary’s stands as the first and only Catholic primary school to be listed as a Stonewall ‘Primary School of Champion’ of gay equality.”

Headteacher Crouch affirmed the goodness of the program presented and that it synchronized with the school’s Catholic tradition:

 “As a school, and as Catholics, we are opposed to prejudice of any kind and felt it was important to tackle the issue of homophobic language and bullying.

“The training was very successful and we feel confident that if any incidents occur our staff have the means to address them appropriately.”

Such an example deserves wide circulation as a model of how Catholic schools can be taking steps to eliminate homophobic bullying.  Ms. Crouch and St. Mary’s school show that concern for their students was able to outweigh any sensitivity about church and secular politics.  Their example of pragmatic partnering is one that principals–and bishops–should emulate.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

 

 

 

Ontario Catholic School Controversy Could Easily Have Been Avoided

A recent story from Ontario highlights institutional Catholic intransigence over LGBT issues is trumping reasonable solutions to simple problems.

Xtra.ca, a Canadian LGBT news source reports on the case of an 18-year old secondary school student named Brooke who has experienced repeated harassment at a Catholic school in Windsor, Ontario:

Brooke with her girlfriend
Brooke with her girlfriend

“Administrators at a Catholic school in Windsor, Ontario, are allegedly threatening to launch a lawsuit in an attempt to silence a gay student who is speaking out against homophobic discrimination at the school.

“Brooke, 18, a Grade 12 student at St Thomas of Villanova Catholic Secondary School, who asked that her last name be withheld, has had a rough school year so far. It began with the death of her father on Oct 1. On top of that, Brooke says a teacher has been bullying her because she is gay and in a relationship with a fellow student.
“And ever since the teacher outed their relationship to her girlfriend’s parents, Brooke says, the school has become the only place the pair can see one another, so she has no choice but to stay.”
Brooke claims that harassment from her religion teacher, Jolene Coste, has been occurring all year, with the teacher making remarks in class about the girl’s relationship with her girlfriend and with negative remarks about homosexuality.  Things came to a head when Brooke alluded to an obscenity when answering  a question about “real” marriage on an exam.  Her response resulted in a ten-day suspension from school.
The arguing and accusations have been going on for most of the past school year.  School administrators have brought up the possibility of suing Brooke for defamation.
Clearly, this situation has gotten out of hand.  What is sad here is not just the possibility that a religion teacher would be bullying a student or that a student would resort to near-obscenity on an exam, but the fact that school administrators have not explored some way to mediate the situation by having the student, her parents, and the teacher discuss the situation together and come to some ground rules for behavior.
As Bondings 2.0 has reported, Ontario Catholic schools are state-funded, and are also subject to the province’s recent Accepting Schools Act, which was designed to eliminate bullying.  Though Catholic schools originally balked at such a law, this situation clearly shows the need for it.  One member of the Ontario parliament, Cheri DeNovo spoke to Xtra about the need for student safety:
“ ‘That’s not just physical safety, but also psychological and emotional safety as well,’ she says. ‘I call on every adult that surrounds her in that school system to stand up for her safety.
“ ‘Here we have a student in a publicly funded school that is not getting the support from her administration. She does not feel safe. Her concerns are not being addressed. Frankly, I think it’s disgusting that no [administrator] is standing up for her.’
 ‘DiNovo says it’s now the province’s job to ensure the act is enforced. Students shouldn’t have to face a legal battle to get the protection they deserve, she says. ‘[Education Minister] Liz Sandals herself should intervene. It’s sad we have to ask this of our students.’ ”
It is terribly sad that the government might have to become involved here.  Last week, Bondings 2.0 reported on a dispute in New York City between a Catholic pastor and a nearby drag show.  The dispute was easily resolved by the parties sitting down and speaking with one another.
In this school case, good Catholic pastoral care and simple human contact and dialogue could have defused this problem before it escalated to such proportions.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

‘You Shall Love Your LGBT Neighbor As Yourself’

Tomorrow is Spirit Day, sponsored by GLAAD, to take a stand against anti-LGBT violence and  bullying among youth. LGBT supporters worldwide will wear purple and promote #SpiritDay on social media as a show of solidarity. Noted Jesuit priest  and author James Martin wrote a blog post for America magazine earlier this week on why participation by Catholics is important, entitled ‘Why Not Wear Purple on Friday?

Citing statistics from the Trevor Project  and US Department of Justice officials, Fr. Martin highlights thatLGBT youth are at a vastly increased risk for suicide attempts, family rejection, and bullying in schools. He encouraged Catholic participation in Spirit Day:

“This should be a no-brainer for Catholics, who are called by Christ to support those who suffer or struggle in any way, particularly those on the margins.

“This is an especially relevant issue for Catholics who support traditional families…For Catholics overall it is an opportunity to demonstrate their ‘respect, compassion and sensitivity’ for their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, and thus heed the call of the Catechism.  (There’s even a site for Catholics supporting the initiative.)  And when we’re talking about suicide, we’re talking about a ‘life issue.'”

James Martin, SJ

Martin even responds to Catholics objecting to Spirit Day and similar initiatives because of an implied endorsement of organizations that oppose official Catholic teaching. He reminds Catholics that it is important to act against injustices, even if partners do not agree on all aspects, because the alternative of waiting for perfection means halting progress. Martin speaks to the heart of Catholic participation in Spirit Day:

“Many gay and lesbian Catholics have told me (in person, in emails, in notes and letters and in Facebook messages) how alienated they have felt from the church lately.  Perhaps as a result of some of the rhetoric that has been used recently, an increasing number of gay and lesbian Catholics, and gay and lesbian youth in particular, feel marginalized from the church in which they were baptized.

“So why not do something simple to show compassion for our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, especially those who are bullied or who have even attempted suicide? Purple is a penitential color, the color of remorse, and so it is particularly appropriate as a sign of remorse over any LBGT hate speech.  Why do something small to show your love of neighbor?”

Those of us at New Ways Ministry will be wearing purple tomorrow to publicly witness against the bullying, violence, and hate speech that harm so many LGBT youth and New Ways Ministry hopes you will join in taking a stand because, as Fr. Martin writes:

“You shall love your LGBT neighbor as yourself.”

Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry