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A Safe Learning Environment for LGBTQ Students

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I'm Melissa Combs, and my youngest child is an 8th grader at Irving A. Robbins Middle School (IAR) in Farmington, CT. He is LGBTQ+ and a member of the Gender Sexuality Alliance (GSA). I am asking you to assist with legal fees my family is incurring as we fight Farmington Public Schools (FPS) with the aim of creating a safe, affirming school environment for all LGBTQ+ students now and in the years to come.

For our child and his peers, last school year was horrific – the bullying and harassment were pervasive and severe. It included everything from LGBTQ+ students being called the F-slur and told to hang themselves to threats of violence and assault. Toward the end of the school year, my child was assaulted by one of the serial harassers. This was reported to both the school and the police department. Neither institution followed up.

The school also refused to investigate an egregious hate incident, where a Pride flag was torn off a wall and stomped on while students chanted, “Burn it, burn it!” Instead, they chose to punish the GSA students for the manner in which the incident was reported by the children. Their Google classroom – the only safe space they had to talk with one another that safe adults moderated – was taken away, and their trusted GSA advisors were forced to quit the club.

Despite daily reports to administrators of harassment, the school repeatedly failed to protect these children. By law, they must notify parents/caregivers when there has been reported harassment. I – and other parents/caregivers – never got these calls. We had no idea what was happening with our children and what they endured daily. It wasn't until another parent told me that her child reported an incident that involved ours being harassed that we learned what was happening.

After making some noise, we finally started getting those calls. However, other students continued to report harassment and no calls were made to their parents/caregivers. In the end, some of us parents saw what was happening to other LGBTQ+ students and alerted their parents/caregivers to contact the school.

What has become clear over time is that Farmington Public Schools is either unable or unwilling to create a safe, affirming environment for LGBTQ+ students. This school district is stealing the childhoods of these kids by forcing them to advocate for themselves at such a young age. These children are at higher risk of suicide, self-harm, poor academic performance, and lower aspirations for higher education.

After months of trying to work with the district, the only option they left us with was to use the three minutes available to speak at Board of Education meetings. For some children, this is a life-or-death issue; there isn't time to chip away at the problem for years by speaking for three minutes once a month.

In June, we filed a complaint with the US Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (OCR), and they began investigating the district in August. We did this to accelerate the work needed to ensure that LGBTQ+ students have the same access to the education their cis/het peers receive.

We naively believed this would force the district to protect all LGBTQ+ children as the new school year started. Meetings with the school prior to the first day about what they were putting in place to protect these students were promising. They eased the minds of the parents/caregivers who were anxious about sending their kids back to the hostile school environment at FPS.

Like everything else, they failed. Two of the primary harassers were supposed to be suspended for the first several days of school for harassment on social media. Inexplicably and without warning, those students' suspensions were cut short, yet again sending the message to the victimized students that the school doesn't care about their well-being or education – and sending the message to the harassers that consequences won't be enforced.

Many victims were reassured that their class schedule would be free of perpetrators. Over and over during the first week of school, LGBTQ+ students found themselves in classes with their bullies.

We have been trying to get the school district to update their policies to protect LGBTQ+ children; to hold them accountable to the bullying and harassment reporting and investigation laws; to break their silence and show unapologetic support for LGBTQ+ students, staff, and faculty; and to create the safe, affirming LGBTQ+ students need to learn.

We are doing this for ALL of the LGBTQ+ children in Farmington Public Schools.

At this time, we’ve taken this as far as we can as parents, and now it’s time to ask for help. That begins with hiring a law firm specializing in education law, students' rights, and civil rights, so we can take this fight to the courts. This, of course, is an expensive proposition, but it’s the necessary next step in order to create a safe educational environment for LGBTQ+ kids in FPS.

We welcome your support so we can pay the remainder of the retainer fee of $20,000. All funds will be spent on legal fees.

Thank you for reading and for your consideration.

Yours in Pride,
Melissa

Organiser

Melissa Combs
Organiser
Farmington, CT

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