December 18, 2013 10:00:40 AM
JACKSON -- A lawsuit filed Tuesday says gay students are routinely bullied in a south Mississippi school district, including a lesbian who was forced to sit alone in the middle of a classroom when others were split into groups of boys and girls.
The Southern Poverty Law Center filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Gulfport against the school district in the city of Moss Point. The lawsuit names as defendants the Moss Point School District, school board, superintendent and the former principal of Magnolia Junior High School.
In a statement late Tuesday, the school district said it hadn't been served with the lawsuit, and would not comment on a matter of pending litigation. The statement added that protecting students from bullying and harassment is the district's "highest priority."
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of 17-year-old Destin Holmes, but it also says other gay and transgender students, or those who are perceived to be, are subjected to similar treatment. One boy attempted suicide.
"I wish I could go to school without being afraid of being who I am," Holmes said in a conference call with reporters and her lawyers on Tuesday.
The lawsuit says Holmes was called names like "freak" and "it" when she was an eight-grader in 2011 and members of the school's staff were among those who used gay slurs, according to the lawsuit.
"I am not an 'it.' I am a person," Holmes said on the conference call.
On one occasion, the lawsuit said a teacher wouldn't let Holmes use the girls' restroom, telling her to use the boys' restroom instead. It says another teacher refused to allow her to participate in a classroom math activity in which teams were divided by gender, calling her an "in between it."
The situation culminated in March 2012 when the man who was principal of Magnolia Junior High at the time used a gay slur and told Holmes that he didn't want her in the school, the lawsuit says.
The girl's father and grandmother removed her from Magnolia Junior High and homeschooled for a time, but she enrolled at Moss Point High School this year when the family could no longer afford to teach her at home, according to the SPLC.
Holmes said Tuesday that the situation is better at the high school, particularly with her treatment from other students, but she said there have still been some problems. She said a substitute teacher at the high school, who knew she was a girl, referred to her by masculine pronouns in a written note.
SPLC attorney Anjali Nair said during Tuesday's conference call that SPLC sent a letter to the school district in March hoping to improve the treatment of Holmes and others. Nair says no deal was reached and the mistreatment continued.