As San Diego mourned the bullying-related suicides earlier this year of a transgender boy named Sage and 16-year-old Taylor Alesena, who was also trans, another story of alleged bullying — by the principal of the region’s most progressive new high school — was unfolding.
“It was the most heartbreaking thing I’ve seen in fifty years of activism,” City Commissioner Nicole Murray-Ramirez says just hours after attending what has been described as “a school board meeting from hell.” The topic was the school’s gay-straight alliance.
“Here you had these kids, some gay, some straight, all coming together to explain to a school board how they were being bullied by the principal,” Ramirez says. “You even had parents complaining.”
Situated in the city’s sparkling new downtown library, an acclaimed architectural and public-use achievement, e3 Civic High School aims to teach civic engagement with a college preparatory curriculum, as well as social and cultural literacy. Yet according to critics, until very recently, its top administrator has been openly hostile to LGBT students.
“I am afraid for my job,” says teacher Valerie Stewart, who is also the school’s gay-straight alliance faculty advisor. “I feel I’ve already been retaliated against.”
According to Stewart, e3’s executive director, Dr. Helen Griffith, initially thwarted the formation of the GSA, called the Spectrum Club, allowing it only after Ramirez and the American Civil Liberties Union got involved.
“Dr. Griffith’s open bigotry and homophobia is detrimental to our students and our school,” Stewart wrote in a letter to the ACLU.
Stewart wrote in the letter that Dr. Griffith told her that “children do not have those kinds of feelings” and that clubs like Spectrum “encouraged children to question their identity when they shouldn’t.”
She also alleges that Dr. Griffith banned the word gay and forbade the GSA from talking about homosexuality or gender identity. Stewart even alleges that one student was told by Dr. Griffith that being gay “isn’t OK” and that the student “needed to find God.”
Dr. Griffith denies the accusations.
“I’m very proud of our students,” Griffith says during a phone interview. “I love them all and they know that. I’ll be attending the Harvey Milk Equality Breakfast with our Spectrum Club gay-straight alliance.”
Asked if she believes homosexuality is a sin, Dr. Griffith demurred.
“That’s not for me to say,” she says. “What I believe or don’t isn’t relevant and isn’t part of the conversation. I have been a victim of discrimination as an African-American. I know the pain of being yelled at by someone who has hatred in their heart.”
But Dr. Griffith admits there have been “misunderstandings.”
“Yes, this has been a growth experience,” she says. “But I never meant to give the impression that our LGBTQ students are anything but loved, valued, and accepted for who they are.”
Out gay San Diego Unified School District board president Kevin Beiser says that although e3 Civic High’s status as a charter school limits his power to influence school policy, he’s been keeping close tabs on the problems there.
“There will be a stronger response if the gay-straight alliance and LGBT students are not given the same respect and opportunities as everyone else at e3,” Beiser says. Still, Ramirez accuses him of being “asleep at the wheel.” While Ramirez says he supports Beiser as school board president, he questions why the ACLU had to come to e3 Civic High School twice to ameliorate LGBT issues.
“We had constructive conversations with the executive director and school board president following recent incidents,” said David Loy, legal director at American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of San Diego and Imperial Counties. Loy wouldn’t say if legal action might follow should the alleged discrimination continue. “As a policy, I don’t ever say we’re going to bring legal action before doing so because every case has specific legal issues and evidence that is needed specifically for each case,” he said. “It is very surprising, because you even have GSAs in the reddest of states — and have had since the Nineties.”