Looking ahead after bullying lawsuit, let’s stay vigilant

/ 10 March 2012 / jennifer

Gail Rosenblum, Star Tribune, March 10, 2012 –

Damian McGee-Backes got a big surprise on his first day at Totino-Grace High School in Fridley.

“The kids in my classes asked me what lunch I had. Then they said, ‘Sit by me.’”

It’s hard to blame Damian for being overjoyed by this simple gesture. The 15-year-old is one of six plaintiffs in the federal civil-rights lawsuit settled last week against the Anoka-Hennepin School District. The lawsuit argued successfully that the district did not adequately respond to constant physical and verbal harassment of students based on real or perceived sexual orientation.

Damian isn’t gay, but his two dads are. The past five years were a nightmare for all of them. Happily, emphasis is on “were.” Damian sleeps well again, enjoys gymnastics and dreams of becoming a teacher.

“I’m proud I was in the lawsuit, but it’s time for me to move on,” said Damian, who transferred from Champlin Park High School to Totino-Grace in December as a ninth-grader. “It’s done. I love school now and I feel safer in it. I’ve put everything behind me and I’m starting fresh.”

If there’s anything we’ve learned here, it’s that we must never make a child have to say those words again.

The five-year anti-harassment partnership created, as part of the settlement, between the school district and the federal departments of Justice and Education is a commendable bridge to healing. But it’s important that we don’t walk away assuming our work is done.

The district’s “neutrality” policy no doubt created harm and confusion and handcuffed teachers who wanted to do the right thing. But no well-intentioned partnership will succeed without universal, and constant, vigilance by all of us, no matter which school district our kids are in.

Until reading the complaint, I didn’t understand fully what kids like Damian were up against. The bullying of Damian began in fifth grade, ramping up in middle school where he was stabbed in the neck with a pencil, choked in the bathroom, pushed into lockers, knocked down in the hallways. Small and a gymnast, he was called “Gaymian” and other vulgarities.

“People knew I had two dads,” he said, “and perceived I was gay because of that. But I wasn’t.” It wasn’t just one bully. It was a group of students, most of them unknown to him. His friends were his saving grace, but they couldn’t protect him all the time.

Like most kids, he kept the torture from his parents. But his grades slipped, he couldn’t sleep and he had “major meltdowns” at home, said his dad, Jason Backes, an autism consultant. Backes and Damian’s other father, Michael McGee, approached the school on numerous occasions to express their growing concerns.

“We hoped that things would just get better,” Backes said, “but they continued. The culture was just toxic.”

It was painful for them, too. “You’re wondering how he’s doing today,” Backes said, “sending him back to school after he begged to be home-schooled … ”

” … Or sending him back to school one day after being stabbed in the neck with a pencil,” added McGee, a buyer for Target. “Maybe we’re the crazy ones.”

Being part of a class-action suit allowed Damian “to see all the support from a group of people he didn’t know,” Backes said. “He got his courage.”

His sister, Alex, 14, is happy at Jackson Middle School in Champlin and “hasn’t felt the pain he has,” Backes said. “Being a girl with two dads seems to be treated differently than being a boy with two dads.”

Alex is glad that the suit’s been settled and she won’t have to see her brother “come home and not want to go back to school.”

Backes said healing began the minute Damian entered Totino-Grace. Yet, “there’s still this feeling in the pit of my stomach … is this going to happen again?”

McGee nods. “There are a lot of people out there who have no idea what their kids are doing. As a parent, I’m so proud of Damian, but there’s a lot of guilt. How did I ever allow him to be in this situation? Not a day goes by that I don’t wonder what I could have done to not put him in that position.”

Damian reassures his dads. At Totino-Grace, he tells them, “if a student says a mean word, other kids turn around and tell that kid to knock it off.”

gail.rosenblum@startribune.com 612-673-7350