Bullied teen’s attempted suicide spurred canceled GSA event at VA Beach high school
An assembly hoping to help address bullying after the attempted suicide of a harassed student at VA Beach’s Frank Cox High School was canceled earlier this week.
The Virginia Pilot reported incoming School Board Member Victoria Manning complained about the event to School board Chairman Dan Edwards which then set the wheels in motion to have it canceled by Cox Principal Dr, Randi Riesbeck.
But a source close to the issue told GayRVA that Cox students had started to plan the event after a student experienced intense bullying and attempted to take their own life. Principal Riesbeck, according to the source, helped lead the charge for the event until its cancelation.
And reports of bullying at the school, located in the wealthiest part of Virginia Beach, are starting to roll in.
“As soon as you enter [Cox as a freshmen], you know what group of friends you’re going to be in,” said 2013 Cox graduate Ethan Potts. He was on the school’s volley ball team, involved in student government, and even won “Mr. Cox” his senior year. He was also in the closet about being gay.
“I was lucky enough to be in a group [of friends] that was nice for the most part, but they were not okay with gay people,” he said. “That’s why I didn’t say anything for so long.”
Potts came out in college, but he knew at least two out gay kids at Cox and their openness and how other students “bullied them mercilessly” forced him to stay mum.
“Being gay isn’t a thing, it’s not normal, its not okay, It’s something that can be changed,” he said about how the student body treated the openly gay students. “If they can pick on this one kid like that, why would I want that?”
The part about changing your sexuality makes sense – VA Beach was home to one of the largest ex-gay therapy centers in the country, Exodus International, until it closed its doors in 2013 and admitted their work was false.
Frank Cox High School appears to be an archaic bullying-beacon in a school district and city that has worked to open itself up to LGBTQ acceptance in recent years. Openly gay school board member Joel McDonald helped pass a new employee and student protection policy that included sexual orientation and gender identity last year and VA Beach Police Department created a LGBTQ Liaison position earlier this year.
“There’s a lot of people upset, both in that it was postponed but also in the perception how it was postponed,” said McDonald in an interview with GayRVA. He said he hadn’t heard much about the event until the Virginia Pilot reported on it last week – and then when they reported on its cancelation late Sunday night.
He spoke with School Board Chair Edwards Sunday night and said Manning’s argument dealt with Title IX, the federal policy that requires schools to give equal time to school clubs no matter the content. According to the policy, if they allowed the GSA to hold this event during school hours, then they would have to offer equal time to a club which could offer a counter message.
Attempts to reach Manning by press time have gone unanswered.
McDonald stressed the school board doesn’t usually intervene in events at the school level and at no point did the board vote to shut the event down.
But being a member of the community – both gay and a resident of VA Beach – he sympathized with the student’s concerns.
“The students saw one of their peers who faced tremendous bullying and harassment and tried to take [their] own life and they wanted to act and speak out on this,” he said. “They wanted to put a face to the very real, nationwide problem for bullying for LGBT students and encourage their peers to make their schools a more inclusive and safer space.”
Michael Berlucchi, President of Hampton Roads Pride, was set to be the keynote speaker of the event. He similarly read about the event’s cancelation in The Pilot and was devastated to find out he wouldn’t get the chance to speak before the students.
“I had friends, straight and gay, saying how excited they were to see the assembly occur,” he said about the feedback he received from the event’s initial announcement. He’s worked with Cox’s GSA and their club’s faculty sponsor, Victoria Milosevich, for sometime offering support where he could.
“[Milosevich] said the students needed a sponsor and [she was] proud and excited to do it, but not sure what it entails,” he said about the initial contact the math teacher-turned club sponsor made when the club started in 2014. But her role, as well as Berlicche’s, took the back seat to the students – GSA, as with most school clubs, are peer-lead and run.
He was told the assembly was set to include performance, artistic expression through music and a panel conversation comprised of students answering pre-submitted and approved questions – and all of this was planned and created by GSA members.
“There was a script to it – it would have provided educational and leadership on the topics of inclusion and respect as well as information on terms within the LGBTQ community,” he said.
Attempts to speak with VA Beach Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Aaron Spence were not returned by press time, but a statement released from Eileen Cox, Chief Media and Communications Officer for Virginia Beach City Public Schools, downplayed the event’s cancelation and stressed student-led clubs should schedule events after school “in order to minimize the loss of instructional time.”
“Monday’s assembly at Cox High School has been postponed in order to give school organizers, led by school counselors, an opportunity to involve a variety of student and community groups interested in being part of the conversation about tolerance and acceptance for all people,” the statement read, making no mention of bullying or a the attempted suicide which lead students to act. “School administrators agree that these are important topics and wish to include as many voices in the conversation as possible. The decision to postpone was made in an effort to be more inclusive of all groups and students, not to marginalize any particular student, group or organization.”
But Potts remembers his time at Frank Cox, a school known for its athletic success. He recalled numerous times where student-focused clubs, including at least twice where he participated with the volley ball team, where students lined the halls for as much as 20 minutes during school hours for “spirit marches” where they would cheer athletes on as they walked by, heading on the bus to away games.
“Its a very masculine, straight thing to go to Cox HS and play a sport,” Potts said. Between athletics and Student Government, he said he “probably spent more time out of class than in class” his senior year.
He called Manning’s use of Title IX a “cop out” and suggested it was a a failure on the part of the school and the school board where they bowed to conservative parent’s pressure.
“It was going to be a chance for students to share their stories,” he said. “The power they have over these kids is disgusting… they didn’t want to upset certain parents in the community.”
GayRVA will follow up with the issue as it progresses.
If you are a student in any Virginia public school and you experience bullying or considering harming themselves because of bullying, please check out resources available here. And if you’d like to share your story with GayRVA, please email us at email@example.com.
“We know that equal, fair treatment under the law is good for business, good for tourism, and good for individuals living in the Hampton Roads region.”February 16, 2017
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