April 20, 2010 at 3:59 pm EDT | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
Slain D.C. middle school principal was gay

Brian Betts (Photo by Bel Perez Gabilondo; courtesy of D.C. Public Schools)

Brian Betts, the highly acclaimed D.C. middle school principal who was found shot to death April 15 at his home in Silver Spring, Md., was out as a gay man to a circle of friends and D.C. public school system colleagues, multiple sources have told the D.C. Agenda.

Montgomery County police said they discovered Betts’ fully clothed body in a second floor bedroom in his house along the 9300 block of Columbia Boulevard in Silver Spring. Police noted there were no signs of a forced entry into the house, leading them to believe that Betts, 42, invited his killer or killers inside.

Police spokesperson Sgt. C. Thomas Jordan said he could not comment on whether Betts’ murder was related to the slain principal’s sexual orientation, saying only that homicide detectives were investigating all possible angles of the case to identify a suspect or suspects.

“I know our investigators are talking to everyone they know of to get to the bottom of the case,” he said. “We are going to investigate every avenue. Our role is to solve a homicide.”

Betts established a reputation as a rising star in the Montgomery County public school system as a teacher and assistant principal before D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee recruited him to join her and Mayor Adrian Fenty’s efforts to overhaul the District’s long troubled school system.

In 2008, Rhee named Betts principal of Shaw Middle School at Garnet-Patterson, a recently reorganized school in the city’s historic Shaw neighborhood. School officials said he quickly emerged as one of the school system’s most innovative principals.

The Washington Post reported that students liked him so much that they asked and Rhee agreed to allow 100 students to remain at the middle school for their ninth grade instead of the normal process of advancing to another school for that grade.

“The unexpected death of Brian Betts is unspeakably tragic for his family, for the Shaw Middle School community, and for all of D.C. Public Schools,” Rhee said in a statement.

“Brian Betts had the courage to take on the leadership of a struggling, underperforming DCPS school,” she said. “He was an inspirational leader for the teachers and for the students, and that leadership was bringing results. He knew what the children under his care were capable of, and he was determined to show them how to get there.”

Montgomery County police disclosed that D.C. police found Betts’ blue Nissan Xterra SUV on April 16 along the 3900 block of Fourth Street, S.E., in D.C., where it was believed to have been abandoned by two suspects between noon and 3 p.m. Police sources said investigators learned from a nearby resident that two males were seen leaving the vehicle, but as of Tuesday police declined to release a description of them.

On Monday, a Montgomery police spokesperson issued another statement saying investigators established that Betts was alive at least until 11:30 p.m. April 14. News media have reported neighbors observing that Betts had hosted a barbeque cookout for one or more people in his back yard on the night of April 14. Police would neither confirm nor deny that report.

Police arrived at Betts’ house about 7:30 p.m. April 15 after a co-worker called to report he had failed to show up at work that morning and could not be reached. The co-worker arrived at the house to investigate his whereabouts and entered the house after discovering the front door was unlocked, police said. Rather than investigate further, the co-worker called police, and police discovered Betts’ body in an upper floor bedroom.

One gay man who knew Betts from the time Betts lived in D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood said Betts had a circle of gay friends and was seen patronizing the Dupont Circle gay bars Omega and Fireplace.

Another gay man who knew him said he assumed Betts was “out” as gay because many people in the gay community knew him in gay circles.

“He was definitely a member of the GLBT community,” said the man, who spoke to D.C. Agenda on condition that he was not identified.

Capt. Paul Starks, director of the Montgomery County police’s public affairs office, declined to comment on Betts’ sexual orientation or whether police were looking into whether the case was a possible hate crime or pick-up murder.

Gay activists and LGBT anti-violence groups in D.C. and other cities have expressed concern in the past that police investigators sometimes failed to seek help from the LGBT community in cases where mostly gay men were robbed or killed by men they met in gay clubs or meeting places and invited home.

In an investigative series of stories in the 1980s and 1990s, the Washington Blade reported more than 20 murders of gay men in the D.C. metropolitan area believed to be pick-up murders remained unsolved. Police confirmed that in each of the cases, investigators found no signs of a forced entry into the victims’ homes, where their bodies were found.

Following the murder of D.C. gay resident Anthony Perkins in December, when police found him shot to death inside his parked car in Southeast D.C., the D.C. police’s Gay & Lesbian Liaison Unit distributed flyers with Perkin’s photo to local gay clubs seeking information from members of the LGBT community.

The GLLU issued a similar flyer in February following the murder of a gay man from Maryland who also was shot inside his car on a Northeast Washington street.

D.C. police have arrested and charged suspects with first-degree murder while armed in both cases.

“Brian Betts was by all accounts an amazingly dedicated teacher and administrator,” said Peter Rosenstein, a D.C. gay activist. “Nothing can ever take that reputation from him. I never knew Brian, but friends did and according to them he was a brilliant, charming, funny, committed-to-his-family-and-students gay man.

“If this is true, my question to the police is: If his murder could be related to his being gay, are they using the GLBT community to help find his murderer?” Rosenstein said. “Are notices being sent out through the GLLU and other avenues to find this murderer and bring him [or] them to justice? Brian deserves no less from society than that we find who is responsible for this heinous crime.”

Sharon Stapel, executive director of the New York City Anti-Violence Project, which monitors violence against LGBT people, said her group defers to police, family members and relatives of LGBT crime victims on whether to disclose the sexual orientation of such victims.

But she added, “Certainly the stigma and fear about being outed is something that can be an obstacle to investigating cases where someone may identify as LGBT.”

“We want people to feel free to come forward if they think that they have information that would be helpful,” Stapel said. “But all of those decisions have to be made in the context of what’s going on in their lives and in the victims’ lives and in the lives of other folks who care for the victim.

“And the reality is we still live in a very violent and very dangerous homophobic world.”

Eliza Byard, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, called Betts “a remarkable example of many, many, many men and women who are gay and lesbian who dedicate their lives to education.”

Pointing to Betts’ work to help transform D.C.’s public schools through his job as a middle school principal, Byard characterized him as “a real example of the amazing work that lesbians and gay men are doing as leaders in schools every single day, whether they are principals or teachers, and the contributions they are making to our schools.”

Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade. He has chronicled LGBT-related developments as they have touched on a wide range of social, religious, and governmental institutions, including the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the military, local and national law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church. Chibbaro has reported on LGBT issues and LGBT participation in local and national elections since 1976. He has covered the AIDS epidemic since it first surfaced in the early 1980s. Follow Lou

  • What a horrible and tragic death. Unfortunately, this deadfall crime took place in DC and is being “investigated” by DC police. I have no confidence of justice being delivered here. Remember last year when a 19 year old attacked and killed a man coming from a gay bar only to receive six months in jail because of a “gay panic” defense.

    • I am not sure where you got the impression that the case was being investigated by the DC Police. The incident occurred in Silver Spring and therefore under investigation by the Montgomery Cty police dept. His car was found in DC; which is why the DC police are assisting in the case. Please learn to read to more carefully….

    • I thought the murder took place in Montgomery County…which is in Maryland? Correct? Did I miss something Bill? Before folks start becoming overdramatic…get your facts straight. Don’t bash folks just because… Please.

  • The Montgomery County Police and DC Metropolitan Police have not been transparent in dealings with the press and the public.

  • Actually, as the article repeatedly makes clear, the crime took place at his home in Montgomery County and will be investigated by the police there.

  • Why is it necessary to publish what bars he went to? Is there some insinuation here that his choice in bars or partners had something to do with his death?

  • I truly hope that the owners of Omega and Fireplace will take it upon themselves to at least review recent video for any clues. No one is accusing their bars of anything. Obviously there are bartenders around and others, who would know him by sight. Even to have a video showing him leaving somewhere ALONE is a clue. It’s been my experience that businesses don’t like to get involved in anything (even theft) unless pressed to do so.

    We always ask Obama and Congress to do things for us because “it’s the right thing to do.” Well, getting involved here would be the right thing to do.

  • Dane, you asked the question. What do you think? Is there?

  • This has always sounded like a gay killing to me. The victim was in his 40s, single, and there was no forced entry into his home. Then his SUV was found in SE DC. Sounds like a mad trick gone bad because they did not get paid.

  • sounds like the gay panic is in the washington police force.

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