A non-binary student in Sherman ISD has been bullied, assaulted all year at school; his mothers want the district to finally act

TAMMYE NASH | Managing Editor

Even as transgender Sherman High School senior Max Hightower was making headlines around the country last fall after the Sherman ISD superintendent tried to cancel the school’s planned production ofOklahoma!rather than allow Max to play a male lead in the show, another LGBTQ student in Sherman ISD was struggling with bullying and actual physical assaults.

The name of the student and their parents are being withheld for their protection.

“My wife and I are an openly lesbian couple with kids in the Sherman ISD,” said M. “I can tell you there is a stark difference in how my [non-binary] child has been treated since Tyson Bennett took over as superintendent.”

Bennett is the one who last fall set off an international firestorm of controversy when he decided unilaterally to cancel Sherman High School’s planned production of Oklahoma! because a trans male senior had been cast in a male lead role. That decision was quickly overturned by the school board, and a delayed production of the play was staged in January.

But even as that controversy raged, M said, school officials — including members of the board of trustees — have failed to take any decisive action to protect her child. “And,” she added, “We have CC’ed the school administrators and the board of trustees on every email we have sent from the beginning. Still — nothing.”

M said she had met Gordy Carmona, the North Texas community engagement and advocacy strategist for Equality Texas, through a program with the North Texas LGBT Chamber of Commerce, and that she and her wife had reached out to Carmona last fall. “Gordy connected us with Equality Texas, and they have been working with us behind the scenes. But now, after my kid was assaulted a third time, people need to know.

“We tried to handle this with the school. That didn’t do anything. We tried to handle it with the school district. That didn’t do anything,” she said, so now the family is taking their battle public.

Carmona and four other people spoke to the school board Monday night, Feb. 26, during the public comment portion of the meeting.

“Especially with the news of what happened to Nex Benedict [a non-binary 16-year-old from Owasso, Okla., who died Feb. 8 after being beaten up in a school bathroom the previous day], these parents are extremely terrified, especially since nothing seems to have been done” by Sherman school officials to protect their child, Carmona said.

Carmona reminded board members that it is “the school district’s responsibility to keep LGBTQ students safe. … School districts have legal obligation to stop bullying and harassment, especially if teachers and administrators know what’s happening.”

They continued, “It was troubling to hear nothing substantial has been done to address the bullying of this nonbinary student, especially after the news of what happened to Nex Benedict. When school officials turn a blind eye to bullying, they endanger the lives of transgender and gender expansive students.”

Stacy Monroe with the Trans Empowerment Coalition also spoke, telling board members, “There is a student in your district who is being bullied. I am not naming names, but I want you to know the community is watching. The school has failed this student.”

Because the situation with the non-binary student was not on the board’s agenda for last night, they could not publicly address the situation or take any action on it.

M said that about a year-and-a-half ago, their non-binary child, then in fourth grade, was “suspended for telling a coach he was acting transphobic.” But when nothing else happened after that, she said, “we thought things would be ok.”

But when their child started sixth grade at Piner Middle School last fall, the harassment started almost immediately, M said. “This year, we have had three physical assaults that we know of. All three have been different students bullying my child.

“The first one in September was on the school bus, and that student was given alternative school for a month. We were hopeful, they’re taking it seriously,” M said. “But after that, it all began to crumble.”

According to information the parents provided to Equality Texas, the attacker in that incident admitted to school officials he had punched the sixth-grader in the face.

The two mothers said it was after that assault that their child told them the same upperclassman had been bullying and harassing the sixth-grader for weeks and often made anti-LGBTQ comments to them.

At one point after that first assault, when the mothers messaged school administrators to ask for more information about what the school was doing to protect their child, the only response they got was a thumbs-up emoji, they told Equality Texas.

On Dec. 15, the sixth-grader was assaulted a second time, this time in front of faculty members.

“All school year, my child has come home telling us, ‘Yeah, the insults keep coming. They keep calling me’ insert slur here,” M said. “Every anti-LGBTQ insult you can think of, they are calling my kid. The fact that sixth-graders know these words is appalling.”

She said the student involved in this second assault had been harassing her child all year, “tell them, ‘You are going to hell,’ and ‘You are a queer bitch.’

“My kid and this other student are in the same classroom. They see each other most of the school day,” she continued. “This time, my kid had had enough. The other student called them queer bitch, and my kid defended themselves. And they were put in in-school suspension for three days.”

After this incident, the parents told Equality Texas they wrote to the school, saying their child “has been telling teachers all year that this child has been bullying him and shoving him. No staff member reported this or did anything about it. … On Friday, this child kept threatening [the sixth-grader]. As a result, the staff had the other child leave the classroom first as to separate them. No staff made sure that the child was away from the classroom before having [the sixth-grader] leave. [The sixth-grader] walked out of the classroom and was assaulted by this student. He was hit while being called a ‘queer b*tch.’”

When M and her wife asked to meet with school administrators before winter break, they received no response.

“That was the end of [the sixth-grader] trusting the school system,” M said. “I am a lawyer. When they asked me, ‘What do I do?” I told them, ‘You have the right to defend yourself.’ They said, “Yeah but I don’t want to be suspended.

The third assault happened on Feb. 13, again on the school bus, and this time, the attack was caught on video. The video showed two students throwing water bottles and pieces of candy at the sixth-grader as other students were using slurs related to the sxth-grader’s sexual orientation and gender identity. The students then started throwing paper balls at the sixth-grader, and as the sixth-grader was getting off the bus, one of the other students hit them.

The sixth-grader facetimed one of their parents from the bus as the harassment was happening.

“My wife gets a facetime call from my kid,” M recalled. “The words she overheard them using, the names they were calling our kid should put every adult into an immediate cringe. Our kid facetimed her asking, ‘What do I do? They are throwing things at me, calling me names.’”

M continued, “She immediately called the school and left a message. They called my wife back and said they are pulling the video and looking into it. That’s the last we’ve heard.”

Meanwhile, she said, the students who attacked her child on the bus on Feb. 13 are still riding the bus. “We don’t know what punishment, if any, they were given,” M said. “We know they were not sent to alternative education, because they are still on the bus with our kid. And the insults are still coming. It’s gotten to the point that we are thinking, what form of martial arts training should we find for our kid? That should never be something a parent has to think.”

Right now, M said, her child is “just really confused about what to do. They want to be a lawyer themself, so academics is very important to them. They just tell they don’t know what to do — ‘If I get hit, I can’t hit them back. I can’t call them names, or I will get in trouble.”

Sherman ISD does have one other middle school, and M said her sixth-grader “could go there. But they are on an Individualized Education Plan, so it definitely would not be an easy transfer.

“But something has to happen. My wife and I have sent the school options, things like Rachel’s Challenge which is an anti-bullying challenge. We’ve talked about restorative justice. We don’t want them to lock these kids up, but something has to change!”

News of the death of Nex Benedict in Oklahoma has only heightened the fears of her and her wife, M said. “I am sure you can imagine that we are just terrified,” she said. “And the fact that our kid even looks a little like Nex — oh my gosh! We’ve said many times, my child will not be the next Matthew Shephard. Now we also say my child will not be the next Nex Benedict.”

Considering the international attention focused on Sherman ISD surrounding the controversy over Max Hightower and the high school play, M said, “We thought that after everything was resolved with Max, the district would be like, ‘Shoot, we should probably fix some of these other things, too.’ But they haven’t. They haven’t done anything.

“We just feel like we are screaming into the void.”

Meghan Cone, chief communications officer for Sherman ISD, provided the following statement in response to Dallas Voice’s request for comment: “Sherman ISD cannot address specific student situations due to privacy laws. However, Sherman ISD is committed to fostering a safe and welcoming environment for all students. Reports of bullying are investigated and appropriate steps taken to address each situation and support the students involved.”