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Richmond high schools have worked to become safer for LGBTQ students, but bullying hasn’t stopped

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A  junior at Kennedy High School in Richmond, Willow, a transgender and pansexual student, had experienced a hard time in freshman year, being bullied both verbally and physically. 

Once, Willow recalled, a boy tried to hurt them by hammering nails upright into their chair. “So I would sit on them and I would obviously poke myself or stab myself on them,” said Willow, who uses the pronoun they. A friend noticed the nails and pulled Willow away. 

In a shop class, a student grazed Willow’s friend’s skin with a drill, leaving a scar. “I hope they find a cure for you,” the culprit said to Willow’s friend, who was not straight.

The events, which became commonplace, made Willow cautious around boys and men. “Now, whenever I’m near a dude, my eyes start watering,” Willow said. 

Willow asked to use a pseudonym in this story for fear of reprisals. 

Bullying of LGBTQ students isn’t unusual in Richmond or the country. In a national survey from this year, more than half of LGBTQ young people said they were verbally harassed at school, and more than two-thirds said they felt unsafe there. 

The front desk of the Wellness Center at Richmond High School (Yichong Qiu)

In Richmond, a  Community Needs Assessment Report showed that from 2015 to 2017, more than half of gay, bisexual and lesbian students said they were bullied and harassed at school. That was twice the percentage of straight students who said the same. 

Bryan Benavides is a health justice program assistant at the RYSE Center, a youth-empowering organization in Richmond. In 2017, he was a freshman at Richmond High School, where he witnessed LGBTQ peers being bullied.

“I don’t believe there are any safe spaces,” said Benavides. “I do remember seeing sometimes the ‘cool crew’ would go up to this openly gay and basically start touching on him and talking about, ‘Oh, you like that,’ calling him multiple slurs.” 

At El Cerrito High School, a recent survey suggests verbal harassment is still common. To the question: “Have you ever heard anti-LGBTQ+ slurs used at the school,” nearly half of the more than 400 respondents said, “Yes.”

More than half of LGBTQ students say they are bullied at school. (Yichong Qiu)

The West Contra Costa Unified School District communications office did not respond to Richmond Confidential’s multiple phone and email requests for comment.

 Ash Abbott, the gender and sexuality alliance adviser at Kennedy High, said bullying at school usually is verbal. Abbott said it is most common in ninth grade, where students are around 14 and 15 years old, an age when youth still do not have a clear understanding of the consequences of saying hurtful words. Abbott said that’s especially true for kids who missed the last years of elementary school due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

At Kennedy, the Gender and Sexuality Alliance gives teens a community where they can support each other and feel safe sharing their thoughts. The alliance is connected to the GSA Network, an organization that promotes gay-straight alliances among students and has more than 20 clubs across the country. The alliance holds activities such as movie nights and pizza parties, where kids can socialize. And Abbott offers one-on-one talks to students in need during lunchtime on Wednesdays.

Jasmine, an openly gay 11th grader at Kennedy, made friends and found a comfort zone at GSA. But she said more is needed in terms of mental health services, especially for students who don’t feel comfortable revealing their sexual orientation and worry about others’ reactions. 

GSA flyer at Richmond High School (Yichong Qiu)

“I feel like they should have more mental resources to help with how they feel, and that would help a lot of people in general, not just LGBT people,” Jasmine said. Richmond Confidential is using only her first name because she is a juvenile. 

At Richmond High School, students formed a GSA club, where they can find support. Beyond that, is the school’s Wellness Center, which offers clinical, dental, vision and mental health services as well as other youth-empowering groups. Services are provided through Contra Costa Public Health and community organizations.

Terry Mitchell, who oversees the Wellness Center, said Richmond High has zero tolerance for bullying. For the first offense, the student would get a warning; second offense, they would get suspended; third offense, the student could get suspended for a longer time or even expelled.

The school has committed to making LGBTQ students feel safe and to ensuring they have activities, Mitchell said. 

At El Cerrito High, the James Morehouse Project provides two gender- and sexuality-related groups and a GSA club. Established nearly 30 years ago, the Morehouse project is a wellness center with five staff members, including three licensed clinical social workers, and a clinical intern team of 10.

“What we try to communicate to students, said project Director Jenn Rader, is that we are 110% committed to creating a safe environment at school for everyone.”

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