Students Suspended After Brawl with Trans Schoolmate

by Heather Cassell
Monday Nov 25, 2013

Officials of the West Contra Costa Unified School District are responding proactively after three girls and a male-to-female transgender student got into a brawl at Hercules High School last week.

A cellphone video shot by another student captured the incident, which was uploaded to YouTube November 14 where a school supervisor saw it, said Connie Van Putten, reserve detective and public information officer for the Hercules Police Department.

All four 16-year-old sophomore students at the high school have been suspended while police and school district officials investigate the incident. A police report is expected to be submitted to the Contra Costa County District Attorney's office's juvenile division for review.

Officials aren't releasing the students' names because they are minors.

Officials are not looking into the incident as a possible hate crime - as initially reported by other media outlets - because all of the students were involved in the on-campus incident, said Van Putten, quoting the news release from the department.

"It's not about the transgender issue," said Adam Taylor, executive director of K-12 Schools at the West Contra Costa Unified School District. "It's really about friendships or allegiances that kids see."

The police report hasn't yet been received by the DA's office, according to a clerk in the juvenile department.

Other media reports, along with school officials, stated that the incident was potentially going to be investigated as a hate crime due to the transgender student complaining of being bullied, which allegedly sparked the incident, said district officials.

Allegedly, the transgender student, who was referred to as a 16-year-old male in the Hercules Police Department's news release, slapped one of the girls at about 1:42 p.m. on Wednesday, November 13. She told authorities that she was being bullied by two of the girls earlier in the week. A third girl joined in the attack after the two girls chased down the transgender girl and began beating her.

The fight was broken up by campus security, according to the police department's release.

All four students suffered minor injuries, said Taylor, and Charles Ramsey, a 20-year school board member.

Two of the students indicated to police they wanted to press charges for battery against the transgender student. The transgender student indicated to she wanted to press charges for battery against the two girls who attacked her, according to the release. She also indicated that she wanted to transfer to another school because she feels like the "harassment is too much," said Ramsey.

The school district has anti-harassment guidelines, but the policy in the 2012-2013 Student Handbook makes little mention of sexual orientation and does not mention gender identity. Sexual harassment and cyberbullying are listed as unique forms of harassment not tolerated in the schools. Students can be suspended for up to five days or even expelled depending on the severity of the harassment. All of the high schools in the district have gay-straight alliances and other programs fostering acceptance and tolerance of queer and transgender students, school district officials said.

Currently, there are two transgender students, including the student involved in last week's fight, attending Hercules High School and six transgender students throughout the school district, said Taylor.

In spite of the anti-harassment policy being in place, enforcing it has been a challenge, said former school board president Karin Fiffer, an out lesbian who served on the district's board from 2004 to 2008. During her tenure, one year of which she was board president, she worked with other board members on the district's anti-bullying initiatives, she said.

"The problem is enforcing the policy, it is raising staff members' sensitivity," said Fiffer.

"[Bullying] raises a lot of excuses when kids say hurtful things that are in fact bullying and are in fact very dangerous to other children, but we tend as a culture to be dismissive of bullying whether it's in the workplace or the school yard," added Fiffer, who raised her four children, who graduated from El Cerrito High School, with her partner.

"Transgender people are very much in danger until we raise our cultural sensitivity and understand that people get to be who they are," said Fiffer, who hadn't see the video when she spoke with the Bay Area Reporter on Friday, November 15.

"I'm kind of glad that I didn't," she said.

The scuffle between the girls has upset the entire school district, which is being proactive in the wake of the incident.

"We can't just bury it," said Ramsey, adding that the schools within the district are very welcoming of every student.

"It's unfortunate in the world that we currently live in that there's not a greater sense of compassion and empathy for the many differences that are brought to our schools and to our workplaces," said Taylor.

The school district plans to support all four girls upon their return to the school after their suspensions, as well as their classmates, said Taylor, who has counselors and services in place.

"Ultimately, our job is to make sure that our campuses [and] that all of our students are safe and that's in word, thought, and deed and then we can focus on the learning," said Taylor.

A special school board meeting has been scheduled for December 2, at 6:30 p.m., at Lovonya DeJean Middle School, 3400 MacDonald Avenue in Richmond, to discuss the fight between the girls and bullying.

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