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Originally published June 3, 2010 at 10:01 PM | Page modified June 4, 2010 at 9:56 AM

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Mount Si High School beating raises concern over treatment of gay students

A student was badly beaten at Mount Si High School, which had been the scene of a 2008 clash over an event highlighting the harassment of gay students. The recent attack has renewed questions about the climate at the school.

Times Snohomish County reporter

Help for bullying

State Education Ombudsman

The Washington State Office of the Education Ombudsman provides third-party conflict resolution for families and schools to help address bullying, harassment and other problems that affect public-school students.

The office provides information, consultation and coaching over the phone. The services are free and confidential.

To contact the OEO call: 1-866-297-2597.

Safe Schools Coalition

The Safe Schools Coalition provides support and advocacy for students being harassed because of gender expression or perceived sexual orientation. Help is available to the students, families or school staff of K-12 public and private schools. The organization also provides training to schools.

To contact the Safe School coalition, e-mail: intervention@safeschoolscoalition.org. Messages will be returned within 24 hours. Or call 1-877-SAFE-SAFE. Calls are answered 24/7 by staff at the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center who forward messages to a Safe Schools Coalition intervention specialist.

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Hundreds of protesters and counter-protesters clashed outside Mount Si High School in the Snoqualmie Valley in 2008 over The Day of Silence, an annual event meant to call attention to the harassment of gay students.

Now, a brutal assault in the boys' locker room is raising questions about the climate for gay students at the school and whether administrators are doing enough to respond to bullying.

The November attack was the culmination of several weeks of taunts about the perceived sexual orientation of a freshman boy, his mother said. The assault victim was another 14-year-old boy who told Snoqualmie police that he was tired of his friend being picked on.

The assault broke his eye socket, two teeth and left him with a concussion. Medical assistance wasn't called for almost an hour, and the boy continues to have problems with dizziness and concentration, according to medical records.

A 16-year-old student, who knew neither of the boys, has been charged with second-degree assault in King County Superior Court and no longer attends the high school. His family declined comment. Another student, who allegedly led the taunts and was seen talking to the assailant immediately before the attack, told police that he didn't know the assailant and hadn't told him to assault the victim.

The Seattle Times is not naming the students because they are minors.

Late Thursday afternoon, the Snoqualmie Valley School District released the report of an independent investigation into the assault and the school's response. The report concluded that administrators could have handled some things differently. For example, numerous administrators could have called 911 but did not, the report said. Nonetheless, it concluded the failings were unintentional.

The report makes no conclusions about the school's handling of possible bullying.

The report ends with the hope that the high school and district can work with the assault victim and his family to rebuild trust so the boy can "have a successful high-school career."

The parents of the beating victim and the friend who was taunted said they both removed their sons from school. They have not seen the district's report, but say that seven months after the assault they remain angry over the school's handling of the incident.

Mothers angry

They say officials didn't notify either family about what happened. When one mother first met with Mount Si Principal Randy Taylor, the meeting ended in anger for both the parent and Taylor. The parent had asked Taylor to make an announcement about the assault to students, staff and families. Taylor refused.

The mothers also say administrators didn't interview either boy about the assault or the bullying. The instigator of the taunts was left in a class with the boy he allegedly taunted. And administrators told the beating victim's mother that they couldn't tell his teachers he'd been the victim of an assault at the school because of confidentiality rules.

"When we asked to be heard, they were defiant. Instead of protecting the youth in their school, their purpose seemed to be to circle the wagons and protect themselves," said Heather Sommers, who said her son was harassed for presumably being gay in the weeks leading up to the assault because his voice hasn't changed yet and he's sometimes physically awkward.

After several months of frustration, the mothers took their concerns to the Snoqualmie Valley School Board which in March ordered the investigation. But Sommers said the investigator did not talk to her or her son, and she remains critical of the district for not addressing the bullying as a factor in the assault.

School's perspective

Neither of the mothers or the boys reported the bullying while it was happening. After the assault, a vice principal asked the boy who was taunted if he had been subjected to anti-gay comments; the boy told him no. But in later conversations with his mother and the victim's mother, the boy said he had been taunted over seeming gay. The parents then reported that to the school.

Mount Si officials defend their response to the assault. Taylor said school officials didn't realize the extent of the victim's injuries and were focused on notifying the police and identifying the assailant. He said student-confidentiality laws prevented him from making an announcement to the school although the district's anti-harassment policy says an announcement that protects student confidentiality may be made in response to bullying.

Taylor also said administrators weren't aware of the taunts about sexual orientation until weeks after the assault.

"We processed this as a fight," Taylor said. "We viewed this as a regrettable incident and were really sorry that one of our students got hurt. We were not aware of the gay factor until weeks later."

Taylor said that in the wake of the Day of Silence protests in 2008, the school has made respect, civility and an awareness of student diversity part of its schoolwide goals. Last year the school provided a day of anti-bullying and harassment training for staff. Mount Si also has a written zero-tolerance policy against harassment.

Assault "stands out"

Jeff Soder, supervisor of Safe and Drug Free Schools in the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, said that bullying and harassment happens at all schools. The Mount Si incident he said, "stands out because of its severity."

Sommers and the mother of the beating victim, Peggy Johnson, said there were several taunting and harassment incidents last fall before the assault in Sommer's Snoqualmie Ridge neighborhood and at school, although the parents and boys did not report them.

Johnson said her son appointed himself the protector of a new friend who was being intimidated and followed by a group of boys in the hallways at school. She said the taunts included anti-gay slurs. One night, Johnson said, she found her son texting the other boy, "Just stay by me."

On Friday, Nov. 6, shortly after noon, the two 14-year-olds came into the locker room to change after PE class. Johnson said the freshman who allegedly led the harassment started taunting the one boy about his presumed sexual orientation.

When Johnson's son swore and told him to leave his friend alone, a 16-year-old junior stepped into the dispute. He struck Johnson's son twice in the face, lifted him off a bench, kneed him in the face and, when he fell to the ground, kicked him, according to witness statements to the police. A school-surveillance camera caught the 16-year-old leaving the locker room, shaking his hand as if in pain, said Johnson, who has watched the tape.

Johnson was summoned to the school by a frantic call from her son. When she arrived about 1 p.m., she said her son was bleeding from the eye and nose and was nearly "unrecognizable" on the left side of his face. She assumed that an aid car had been called, but one wasn't summoned until 1:16 p.m., according to police records.

She also learned that a vice principal had asked the boy to go back to the locker room and search for his missing tooth.

"We made a lot of effort"

The beating victim returned to school in January after his mother requested intervention by the state Office of Education Ombudsman to help negotiate safety and academic plans for her son. The OEO said it couldn't comment on the case.

Taylor and Assistant Principal Cindy Wilson said they welcomed the state's help. They said they made repeated attempts to get the beating victim back into school, but that their efforts only seemed to provoke additional anger and misunderstanding from the boy's mother.

"We made a lot of effort to accommodate him," said Wilson, noting that the school offered after-school tutoring sessions and extended time to make up coursework. "We wanted so much for him to come back and succeed."

School faced controversy

Some who've followed Mount Si's history believe that administrators have not taken a stronger stance in defense of gay students — or those perceived to be gay — out of fear of community backlash.

Outspoken anti-gay rights pastor Ken Hutcherson and a group of parents in 2008 called for cancellation of the Day of Silence. They told the school board that the event was an example of Mount Si teachers forcing their liberal political agenda on students. When the day wasn't canceled, they urged parents to keep their students home. More than 100 held a prayer vigil outside the school.

Josh Friedes, advocacy director for the gay-rights group Equal Rights Washington, attended several of the contentious school-board meetings. He said that Superintendent Joel Aune never spoke out for the right of gay students to attend school free from harassment.

"The absolutely uncontroversial proposition, that all students should be safe at school, was eclipsed by a belief that there was a gay political agenda." Friedes said.

George Potratz, a language-arts teacher at Mount Si, said he's been disciplined twice for standing up for gay students, once when he booed Hutcherson's appearance as the school's Dr. Martin Luther King Day speaker in 2008, and again last year when he taught a poem before the Day of Silence by Walt Whitman about the loss of a male lover.

School administrators have done little in the last two years, he said, "to foster student understanding of gay people." The result, Potratz said, is that some students "feel entitled and empowered to aggressively voice their intolerant attitudes."

Leaving school

Two weeks ago, Johnson and her son helped Sommers and her son pack up the contents of Sommer's Snoqualmie Ridge apartment and move to another city. Since both boys stopped attending Mount Si, they will likely have to repeat ninth grade. Sommer's son will attend a private school on the East Coast next year. Johnson said her son will not return to Mount Si.

No protests were held outside Mount Si on the Day of Silence in April, but 432 students — almost 30 percent — skipped school.

Sommers said she asked her son what he thought about so many kids not showing up.

He said, "I think a lot of people don't like gays."

Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305 or lthompson@seattletimes.com

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