Grand Divisions

Tennessee Equality Project seeks to advance and protect the civil rights of our State’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons and their families in each Grand Division.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Gordonsville student endured years of anti-gay bullying before ending his life

Late Friday night, Tennessee Equality Project began hearing reports that an 8th grader in Gordonsville in Smith County, Tennessee had completed suicide after enduring years of anti-gay bullying. Ironically, the news arrived as members of TEP's board attended the first Bully-Free Tennessee Conference in neighboring Putnam County with educators, parents and other safe school advocates.

Local news confirmed on Saturday that Phillip Parker was the 8th grader who had ended his life.

TEP Board members Jonathan Cole and
H.G. Stovall paid respects to Phillip Parker
outside his school last Sunday.
While attending Saturday's conference, H.G. Stovall and I met a former teacher who knew Phillip while he attended Gordonsville Elementary School.  Tears flowed as she told us that Philip had endured years of anti-gay bullying at the school and that bullying in general at Gordonsville Elementary School often goes unaddressed by faculty and staff. She knew of several students who had to transfer to other schools to escape the harassment. This educator also knew Phillip had endured anti-gay preaching from the pulpit of his church. 

After the conference, H.G. and I visited Gordonsville to pay our respects to Phillip. On Sunday, we laid a vase of purple flowers at a shrine outside the entrance of Gordonsville High School. Members of the community brought cards, flowers and teddy bears. Most were quiet and tearful in their grief. We were able to speak to one of Phillip's teachers. Sadly, she confirmed the same stories we had heard the day before about Philip's experience at school and at church. She recalled learning that his pastor had recently told him to "pray the devil out him, so he could be straight." His teacher also remembered that beneath his inner turmoil Philip was always smiling and would often tell his peers how beautiful they were.

We've learned from Phillip's teacher that the school invited a grief counselor to speak to faculty about information to share with the kids about the Trevor Project and other outlets for LGBT kids to seek help. She said: "I hope if nothing else, the students of our school will see how much words can hurt and how much healing can and should happen when compassion and kindness are shown to others."

While these resources are helpful, we must do more than provide crisis hotline numbers to Tennessee students who feel isolated and alone. Bullying is a problem allowed by adults. In December, we learned after the suicide of Jacob Rogers that the anti-bullying policy of Cheatham County School District did not include sexual orientation or gender identity or expression among the enumerated protections. Smith County's school district policy lacks the same protections.

A school should be a place where students feel safe and protected by the teachers and staff charged with their care. Phillip clearly had teachers who tried to watch out for him. But the educators who knew Phillip shared that not all teachers were willing to confront the anti-gay bullying that he and other students have endured in the school system.

A crisis hotline number is not a plan to address bullying. A crisis hotline number does nothing to address bullying. Smith County and other school districts in Tennessee must adopt strong anti-bullying policies with enumerated protections for students who are the most vulnerable to bullying. They must also consider data-driven tracking systems to empower administrators and teachers with the tools they need to provide a safe environment. Local school boards and the Tennessee General Assembly must address the bias that exists in our schools. Tennessee students are depending on the adults to do the right thing to protect them. Will they?

1 comment:

Jeff said...

Thanks for being at ground zero of the story Jonathan. It's important to know more about who Phillip was - and what drove him to take his own life.