Sometimes there are stories in the media that aren’t just stories for me. Sometimes soul smashing details are revealed, drowning me in the victim’s pain, driving me to act, sometimes to the point of obsession.
Such was the case of Billy Lucas. The fifteen year old perceived gay teen from Greensburg, Indiana bullied to death in 2010. Four years ago today September 9th 2010 fifteen year old Billy was found dead in a barn at his grandmother’s home. He had hung himself after years of violent harassment including hitting, punching, slapping, kicking and name calling. Student’s reports to local media revealed classmates told Billy to “go kill yourself faggot’ on multiple occasions and earlier in the day of his suicide. Often the violence and hate speech occurred in front of educators. Teachers were accused of actively participating in, and turning a blind eye to Billy’s harassment. Upon first reading the story and seeing Billy’s photo, I was flooded with instant pain. It was as if someone had turned on a faucet. Hate, betrayal, and rejection pounded over my body, on and off for weeks. Try as I might to focus on other things, I found myself on several occasions doubled over in tears, followed by nausea and vomiting. If I happened to believe in ghosts, (which I don’t) I would of swore the ghost of Billy Lucas had taken up residency with me. Right or wrong I was ‘in’ and there was no escaping that.
At the time I was operating under ‘GetEQUAL Indiana’ and decided to focus a good deal of energy pursuing the Greensburg Indiana school district. My other half Randy was also moved to help. We organized through Facebook and twitter a ‘phone bomb’ to ‘blow the phones up ringing’ at the school with calls, concern and complaints. People were outraged and wrote emails and reached out to the school. The internet was aglow with Billy Lucas.
Over the years some schools have agreed to meet with us after anti-gay bullying events to discuss the school’s anti-bullying efforts. We also discuss the importance of student GSAs (Gay-Straight Alliance) safe zones and programs and websites like GLSEN (Gay Lesbian & Straight Education Network.) Despite numerous attempts to reach out and meet with school officials in the weeks after Billy’s suicide we were met with a wall of silence. Our emails never answered, phone calls never returned.The school and district refused to talk about their bullying policy time and time again.
So we started attending school board meetings. Each member of the public is given two minutes at the end of meetings to speak. On multiple occasions Randy spoke, I spoke, other activists like Chelsea Grimes, the mother of Dynasty Young spoke. Dynasty made national headlines in 2012 when his mother armed him against school bullies by giving him a stun gun at Tech High School, Indianapolis Public Schools. Each spoke with equal and powerful passion but to a silent school board that wouldn’t even look at us. No ‘thank you’ when people were done speaking, not even a nod. In fact the entire school board seemed very busy shuffling their papers and looking down. It was a very eerie, dead quiet. Dynasty’s mother agreed.
Current Greensburg teachers Iris Ramp and Darci Kovacich were implicated in a lawsuit filed on the second anniversary of Billy’s death. The wrongful death lawsuit was later settled by the school district and family. According to the filing Ramp and Kovacich witnessed students harassing Lucas on multiple occasions and never intervened. The complaint alleged the teachers encouraged and participated in harassment, ridicule and abuse of Lucas. Kovacich allegedly confined Billy to a work room closet in front of students. In other shocking news former Assistant Principal, David Strouse who allegedly had knowledge of Billy’s on-going bullying but turned a blind eye to, it is now the principal of Batesville Indiana Middle School just up I-74. In fact Mr Strouse sits on the board of directors for the Indiana Association Of School Principals.
Mr Tom Hunter is the current Greensburg School Corp Superintendent. He was appointed in 2000 by the Greensburg School Board. He has an impressive education background and sits on various committees and boards including:
Chairman, Greensburg chamber of commerce education committee
Trustee Greensburg First Baptist Church
Advisory board Greensburg community learning center
Advisory board Envision Decatur County
Advisory board C4 Vocational school
Chair Greensburg board of zoning appeals
member Greensburg planning commission
Chair education committee, Decatur county united fund
member Indiana Association of public school superintendents
member American Association of school administrators
the list goes on
One time after weeks of calls the Superintendent Tom Hunter finally returned my call, he was rushed, I asked him about GSAs and safe spaces for LGBT youth in which he replied in a condescending tone, “Mr Stevens for me to acknowledge your question would mean that there was such a thing as a gay kid” he went on, “I do not believe there is such a thing as a gay child” I replied, “What are you talking about? Of course gay youth exist, I was a gay youth Mr Hunter” “No Mr Stevens I think not” The problem was becoming more clear to me. The school leaders, the school administration, Tom Hunter specifically didn’t acknowledge Billy’s existence as a gay youth, self identified or not. If they didn’t recognize the existence of gay youth in the first place they could never hope to identify a potential LGBT youth in crisis. I replied, “Mr. Hunter, you can’t be serious, your living in a fantasy world” He replied “nope I don’t think so” and started to hang up. With that regrettably I told him “Well maybe I will come to the school board meeting tonight and maybe when I get there I will knock some sense into ya” Tom Hunter lost it then, “that’s a threat and now I’m calling the authorities” and he did. He took a common phrase, said in a moment of frustration and turned it into an opportunistic police frenzy. There were multiple armed cops and media at the school board meeting. The police gave us the evil eye. The district officer denied me the use of a restroom I later discovered to be public. After the usual passionate speeches about “each child having a fundamental right to a hostile-free education we packed up our signs and left. A Greensburg squad car followed us out of town and up I-74 towards Indianapolis for miles. I can still see the cop in our rearview mirror as the corn fields whisk by. I found it ironic this man needed so much security while he and his employees could not offer security to an out-casted, gay perceived Billy Lucas. For the record I do not believe in violence as a means for change. Violence only breeds more violence.
In between the school board meetings we worked behind the scenes filing complaints and requesting meetings. Complaints were turned into the Indiana State Department Of Education, The Office Of Civil Rights, The Greensburg Police Department and Decatur County Child Protective Services about the alleged mistreatment of Billy Lucas by school staff. I have never heard back on these complaints because I am not related to Billy but advocates can file complaints on the behalf of other people. In the weeks following the death of Billy, at least ten more deaths of gay youth would shock the country and spark the formation of the “It Gets Better Project” – founder Dan Savage and Terry Miller. Last year I had a successful meeting with the Indiana Department Of Education. Now thousands of Indiana educators have valuable access to GLESN, the It Gets Better Project and The Trevor Project via the IDOE website for teaching professionals.
The small town of Greensburg Indiana population 11,640 is no stranger to anti-gay controversy. In May 2012 a chilling video went viral that surfaced from the Apostolic Truth Tabernacle in Greensburg. In the video an obviously coached young child sings “I know the bible’s right somebody’s wrong…Aint no homos gonna make it to heaven” followed by cheers and a standing ovation by the congregation (Greensburg Residents). The video drew the ire of gay groups for weeks including GetEQUAL Indiana. In fact a town member threatened to shoot me for my sign in front of several Greensburg police officers. The townsman was not armed but lived only a couple houses away from the hate church. His comment went unchecked by cops but officers did ask me for my drivers license. I refused because I wasn’t breaking the law. I was on public land, just not the little fenced in enclosure they made all the gays stand in on the side street of the church. The cops backed down, as we raged against the town and church.
I’ve since moved on from that hateful, exclusionary town and not since has a story affected me on such a profound level. If Billy was here today and to kids like Billy I would say: Please hang in there, embrace your quirks and love yourself first and foremost. There are people out here willing to fight for your right to exist. There is a wonderful, largely loving community waiting to accept, embrace and love you back if you can just hang on.
In preparing for this blog entry I reached out to Tom Blessing of Frazier law firm: The Lucas family attorney. I asked him if he wished to express any thoughts coming up on the anniversary of the Billy Lucas suicide. Mr. Blessing stated per our phone conversation: “I hope by taking cases it makes a difference but it doesn’t. I’m frustrated. Schools blind eye bullycide and pay lip service to school safety but schools never tell who, what , when, where or why. The public is met with a wall of silence. All I hear is excuses, excuses. “boys will be boys” “we can’t control kids” The only thing that gets attention is lawsuits but schools have general liability coverage. Settlements do not come out of their budget, I get calls all the time.”
You can see by his resume, Tom Hunter isn’t just a school superintendent that gives shelter to gay bashing teachers. He has his hands in the Greensburg chamber of commerce, education and church committees, charities, the Greensburg planning commission and is the chair of the Greensburg board of zoning appeals. Tom Hunter is a central figure in the Greensburg power structure. He oversees millions of dollars while his religiosity fueled ambitions deny the existence of gay children. One might think this dangerous man might seek higher office someday.
Greensburg schools is a tax payer funded public institution. There absolutely cannot be such a thing as untouchables when it comes to our kids. It is an outrage that teachers Iris Ramp and Darci Kovavich are still on the job after all of this time. Teachers who harass, intimidate or turn a blind eye to anti-gay bullying and lock kids in work closets at school don’t belong on the job. Denying the existence of ‘gay kids’ and denying the formation of GSAs and safe spaces in the Greensburg Middle and High Schools is absolutely unacceptable.
At the time of the writing, despite Indiana Sunshine Laws and the fact it’s a public school that receives tax payer money, the Billy Lucas lawsuit is a settled case. Greensburg School Corp and the lawyer for the schools, Thomas E Wheeler, absolutely refuse to release simple information like if the middle and/or High school at Greensburg have GSAs complete with safe zones. Thomas E Wheeler was however interested in misdirecting me to alleged domestic charges in the Lucas family home in a fairly long email. Mr. Wheeler seems uninterested in acknowledging Billy’s right to a hostile-free education in a public school
For tolerating such unprofessional conduct by employees, that are supposed to offer safe haven to our kids, on this, the 4th anniversary of the Billy Lucas suicide, I call upon the Greensburg Indiana School Corp, school board to immediately fire Tom Hunter, Iris Ramp and Darci Kovavich and release adequate proof Greensburg Middle and High Schools have active GSAs complete with safe zones. Send a strong message that anti-gay harassment will not be tolerated in our public schools. If Tom Hunter cannot do his job as superintendent of public schools because of his religious views, he should immediately be removed from his post as Superintendent. By denying the existence of LGBT people and kids, Tom Hunter is using his position and children as a political weapon.
The bigoted message is loud and clear in Greensburg Indiana, but Billy Lucas deserved a chance to thrive without being harassed and intimidated. Schools have a legal obligation to protect all children and offer them a safe space to learn. If that means we need the national guard to escort LGBT kids from class to class, then so be it. LGBT kids nailed inside the closet in Greensburg Indiana deserve a hostile-free education where they can be themselves, focus on learning, and retreat to an LGBT friendly designated safe space if need be.