The arrest of a 15-year-old San Luis Obispo High School student on a hate crime charge was "an aberration," the San Luis Coastal school district superintendent said Wednesday, as advocates for LGBTQ and disabled students called for better policies and staff training to prevent similar incidents in the future.
The San Luis Obispo Police Department announced Tuesday that a SLO High student had been bullying an autistic classmate since the beginning of the school year and had threatened him and sent derogatory text messages because of his disability and perceived sexual orientation before a physical altercation occurred.
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The suspect was arrested on March 1 on suspicion of a felony hate crime, felony witness intimidation and misdemeanor criminal threats, police said. He was booked into the county Juvenile Services Center in lieu of $75,000 bail.
Neither student is being named because they are minors.
Superintendent Eric Prater said the district is concerned any time a student is harassed or bullied and has taken steps toward preventing intolerant behavior, including by forming a task force with representatives from diverse groups to make recommendations on how to improve school policies, practices and training.
"We continue to work through the facts of this incident, ensure due process, and make sure our students are safe from this type of behavior," Prater said. "We try our best to ensure victims of student harassment (or bullying) are supported and feel safe to return to campus."
Representatives of the Central Coast Coalition for Inclusive Schools who have been in close contact with parents of LGBTQ students, however, say that bullying and harassment is a problem.
"I have a lot of respect for Dr. Prater and I realize the difficult position he's in, but what we're hearing from parents is that a lot of things are being swept under the rug," said Doug Heumann, a coalition member and chair of the Tranz Central Coast advocacy network. "I know the district has a lot of policies, but there needs to be training, so teachers and others know how to respond to these things."
Heumann said that better training will lead to better documentation of bullying incidents on campus, which will give administrators a more informed idea of how widespread the problem might be.
"Otherwise, you have situations where students are bringing a knife or a gun to campus," Heumann said.
Ellen Sturtz, also a member of Central Coast Coalition for Inclusive Schools (made up of a network of local agencies including Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo County and Tranz Central Coast), agreed that better accounting is needed and suggested evaluation of the district's efforts by an independent group.
"It has come to light through this incident that several San Luis High School students have been bullied for months or years, and at least one student perpetrating such violence has gotten away with it," Sturtz said. An independent evaluation would determine whether this case was isolated or not, she said.
Sturtz said the Central Coast Coalition for Inclusive Schools is calling for people to attend Tuesday's school board meeting at 6 p.m. to share their thoughts and show support for inclusive schools.
Campus called safe
In defending San Luis Obispo High School, Prater pointed to an anonymous YouthTruth survey of district students, with more than 84 percent participating, that revealed the SLO High campus is "overwhelmingly positive, engaging, safe and courteous."
"All of our middle and high schools scored in the upper quartile compared to schools across the nation regarding student perceptions of safety," Prater said. "This unfortunate situation is an aberration that is being addressed accordingly by school and law enforcement officials."
Prater also said that student government leaders are working on campus goals to address the most pressing issues faced by their peers.
"Without any interference by me, the students have identified site-specific goals that they feel reflect the most important issues," Prater said. "Not one goal selected from this diverse group of students (of which several represent the LGBTQ community) identified bullying or harassment as a significant issue at school."
Prater said that he believes a vocal group exists who feel that bullying and harassment is worse than the school data indicates.
"The advocates or certain parents are especially vocal; however, the collective student data doesn't support this argument," Prater said. "That said, we continue to 'clean our glasses' on a regular basis. We are trying to remain free from bias and want to truly understand the reality within our schools."
Prater said that he couldn't respond to rumors that the suspect had a history of harassing classmates, saying it was "a student discipline matter." Separate from the criminal case, it's also unclear just how the district might discipline the student and whether he will be suspended or expelled.
Heumann said that school data might not represent the perspectives of students who fear coming out as LGBTQ, those with disabilities or those who might be uncomfortable talking to a student senator or administrator.
Prosecuting the case
Assistant District Attorney Eric Dobroth said his office is actively prosecuting the hate crime case in juvenile court.
Dobroth said that hate crimes involving local students are not commonly brought to the DA's Office for consideration of prosecution.
"My recollection is that it happens from from time to time, but it's not prevalent," Dobroth said.
He said that hate crimes can be charged in connection with verbal threats or physical crimes committed against people of classified groups, including disabled and LGBTQ people.
A California Healthy Kids Survey analyzed data in 2013 and 2015 and included questions about suicide, which is a major issue among these vulnerable populations.
Results showed that 49.2 percent of LGBTQ youth reported that they had seriously considered attempting suicide versus 14.4 percent of their heterosexual peers. Similar results were found for transgender youth, with 46 percent admitting to having seriously considered suicide versus 16.6 percent of non-transgender youth.