A lesbian student at a Mississippi high school is taking action against her school district over harassment and discrimination she says she’s faced from students and administrators over her sexual orientation and appearance.
The Southern Poverty Law Center on Tuesday filed a lawsuit on behalf of Destin Holmes, a 17-year-old student at Moss Point High School, seeking a resolution to put in place a new policy to protect gender nonconforming students like her from bullying and discrimination.
During a conference call with reporters on Tuesday, Holmes said she endured harsh torments over her sexual orientation and preference to wear a baseball cap over more traditionally female attire.
“When I was in middle school, the teachers and students called me an ‘it,’” Holmes said. “I’m not an ‘it.’ I am a person, a teenager, a human being. Just because I prefer to date the same gender, wear hats or non-girly … clothes doesn’t mean I should be isolated and made fun of because of it.”
Anjali Nair, staff attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, said the harassment against Destin was pervasive from both students and administrators at the school, where she heard insults as many as 20 times a day and one teacher denied her access to the girl’s restroom.
“Another teacher even refused to allow her to participate in a classroom activity where teams were divided by gender because Destin, according to the teacher, was an ‘in-between it,’” Nair said.
Nair said Destin was eventually driven out of Magnolia Junior High after the then-principle called her a “pathetic fool” and told Destin, “I don’t want a dyke in this school.”
“At a time when families and communities across the country are trying to teach children the consequences of bullying, it is tragic that the Moss Point school district chooses to ignore those lessons,” Nair said.
Nair said her organization attempted to reach a resolution with the school district in March, writing a demand letter to the school seeking change through administrative means, but those efforts were unsuccessful.
Also on the conference call with reporters was Jennifer Holmes, Destin’s grandmother, who also lives in Moss Point and said the school has been reluctant to make changes after requests from her and Destin’s father.
“For the past two years, we’ve tried everything we could with the school, but they did little or nothing,” Holmes said. “In some ways, administrators made the situation worse for Destin. We had to pull her out of school eventually, despite having numerous meetings and conversations with the administrators.”
The 21-page complaint sues the Moss Point School District on the basis of Title IX of the Education Amendment of 1972, which prohibits schools from discriminating on the basis of gender, and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The complaint seeks damages for Destin, an injunction barring the school from allowing discrimination against Destin and other students like her and the implementation of new polices to foster a more inclusive environment.
Although SPLC is asking the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi to take action, Nair said the school on its own can still take “concrete action” to rectify the situation.
“This can stem from trainings that are provided to school students, district and staff to address the rights of LGBT students and the rights of students to be free from discrimination on the basis of their gender,” Nair said. “This can include policies and practices that are implemented within the district so that district administrators know the proper steps to take in investigating and responding to reports of harassment.”
In a joint statement provided on Tuesday to the Washington Blade, Moss Point School Board President Clifton Magee and Superintendent Maggie Griffin said the district hasn’t been served yet with the lawsuit and cannot speak to the claims because they’re a matter of litigation.
“Protecting our students from acts of bullying, harassment, intimidation and threats by any individual is our highest priority,” Magee and Griffin said. “The district has in place policies and procedures to ensure that our students are free from discrimination and bullying. We, as most districts across the nation, try to ensure that students in our schools are safe and secure.”
For Destin, the goal of achieving a resolution with her school district is about ensuring a safe place to learn for herself and others facing discrimination because of gender non-conformity.
“I wish I could go to school without being afraid to be who I am,” Destin said. “I’m a human being and I should be treated that way. I’m here to take a stand and speak up for myself and for others who are not in a position to do so. I don’t want anyone to go through what I’ve been through.”