Luke Herbert, a 15-year-old freshman at Flagler Palm Coast High School in northern Florida, was recently subjected to antigay mocking from his shop teacher (not to mention bullying from his fellow classmates). After Herbert asked to be removed from the class, he says he encountered a protracted back and forth with school officials — then the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida got involved. On Friday, news broke that the school district would create anti-bullying public service announcements and that Herbert's teacher would make a public apology. The articulate Herbert, along with ACLU staff attorney Shelbi Day, spoke with The Advocate about the case and what's next for Luke.
The Advocate: Luke, how do you feel?
Luke Herbert: I feel good. I’m happy the ACLU was able to negotiate and find a solution with my school. I’m happy there’s going to be an apology, because there were other people offended by this other than me. It’s a good outcome.
Shelbi, what are the details on the apology?
Luke: Well, we don’t have a date. We have assurances from the school district’s attorney that it will happen. They’ve spoken with the teacher and he’s agreed to the public apology. My understanding is that their plan is to make the apology part of the first of a series of public service announcements done with some of the GSA students, and the teacher at that time will make the public apology.
Luke, will you be returning to school?
Luke: For the remainder of the school year, I’m not going back there. As for 10th-grade, I honestly don’t know yet. I don’t have to decide until August.
Shelbi Day: Just to be clear, the school’s working with Luke and his mom and they’ve created a plan for Luke to do “virtual school” with some guidance and structure by the school. They’re in the process of trying to get that up and running so that Luke can hopefully complete the 9th-grade — it will take him the rest of this year and into the summer. They’ve also given him a variety of options for the 10th-grade — he could return to the high school he was going to, he could go to one of the other high schools, or he could continue with “virtual school.” So, we want to see how he does with “virtual school” and see how he’s feeling about going back to high school — it was a pretty rough introduction to high school for Luke.
What is “virtual school”?
Shelbi: The classes, instruction, questions and answers are all done online. In this case, given what’s happened and the reasons behind Luke falling behind the way he did, the school agreed to put together a plan that would allow Luke to be able to do what he needed in order to get the 9th-grade completed.
Luke, have you been getting support from your peers?
Luke: I don’t go out about town every day, but nobody’s approached me at the grocery story or anything like that. No negative attention. This is just hearsay, but a friend of mine still attending Flagler High School said a Language Arts teacher said something to the effect of, “What do you think of that kid Luke going on the news?” I guess a lot of kids laughed and made fun of the situation and called me names. I guess the teacher said, “Oh, he’s probably doing this just for attention.” I’m sure this is going on in other classes, and it makes me glad I’m not there, and not want to go back.
Shelbi, can you talk about the school’s changing its bullying policy to address sexual orientation and gender identity? Does the school board have to approve any changes?
Shelbi: They do. What the school district attorney has agreed to do is to make a recommendation. To my understanding, they don’t see it being a problem. Florida’s statewide bullying law does not enumerate specific categories or characteristics that are protected from bullying and harassment. It is clear that Florida’s law from the legislative history is intended to include all students, including LGBT students. But Florida, in enacting the law, left it up to school districts to adopt policies that adequately put teachers, staff, students, and parents on notice for what kind of activities and conduct are prohibited. What we’ve been encouraging for the last few years since the state law was enacted is that school districts go ahead and enumerate a list of protected categories that would include sexual orientation and gender identity so it’s abundantly clear to everyone that any bullying and harassment based on actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity is prohibited. It’s our understanding the school district’s attorney is going to recommend something in that realm.
Luke, how have you managed to be so strong about this? What would you say to other bullied LGBT kids?
Luke: Kids in my situation should contact adults; people in their family. If they’re lucky, they have a person at school, maybe a guidance counselor they can talk to. It’s unfortunate, a lot of gay teenagers don’t have support from their family. It’s sad. But stay strong, be who you are. Be the best person you can be, the most authentic person you can be.
Sounds like your mom has been supportive.
Luke: She has. She’s a little overwhelmed by everything, but she’s been supportive.