JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — An advocacy group said Thursday that gay and lesbian students at a south Mississippi school are subjected to bullying and harassment from classmates and faculty.
The Southern Poverty Law Center sent a letter Thursday to the Moss Point School District on behalf of Destin Holmes, a former student who says she was bullied and humiliated at Magnolia Junior High School in the city of Moss Point.
A school district official, Stephanie Packer, said in an emailed statement later Thursday that the district would have no comment at this time. "This is currently an ongoing investigation," the statement added.
Holmes and her family said school administrators did not stop the bullying, which happened last year while she was an eighth grade student. They also say that when she complained to school officials in March 2012, a principal used a gay slur for lesbians and said they shouldn't attend the school.
Holmes, 16, said she's being home-schooled now because she didn't want to go back to Magnolia Junior High under those conditions.
The SPLC said in its letter that the school should "implement a plan to comprehensively address the hostile environment" or face a lawsuit.
The letter said students in Minnesota faced similar treatment at a school there and the SPLC filed a federal lawsuit. The Anoka-Hennepin School District in Minnesota eventually agreed to a five-year consent decree with federal oversight and a monetary award, the SPLC letter said.
Holmes told AP on Thursday that her math teacher once split the eight-grade class into male and female groups for a trivia game.
Holmes spoke at a news conference earlier Thursday with some relatives and SPLC officials and later told The Associated Press by telephone that she consented to her name being used publicly.
"I wasn't on a team. The teacher told me I had to be in the middle. She called me an 'it,'" Holmes said. "It's crazy. Like that day, I remember everything. After she called me an 'it,' I just put my head down and cried."
Holmes' grandmother, Jennifer Holmes, said Thursday that her family contacted the Mississippi Department of Education, but was told to contact the local school board. She said local officials didn't help.
"It's been terrible to watch somebody that you love go through that. You feel hopeless and helpless," Jennifer Holmes said.
Department of Education spokeswoman Patrice Guilfoyle said it's not clear if the student's family called the agency, but officials weren't aware of any formal written complaint. She said people calling with complaints about schools are usually told to follow a procedure in which they would take the problem to the principal, then the superintendent, then the school board, before filing a written complaint with the department.
Guilfoyle said the state agency has policies but it's up to districts to establish and enforce their own rules for dealing with bullying.
SPLC attorney Sam Wolfe said he hopes to work with school officials in the coming weeks to find a solution to what he says is an ongoing problem for Destin Holmes and other students.
In 2010, Constance McMillen successfully challenged a rural Mississippi school district's ban on same-sex prom dates, drawing national headlines. A lesbian who grew up in Fulton, McMillen told The AP that year that she became a bullying victim after she challenged the Itawamba School District over a policy that prohibited her from bringing her girlfriend to the prom and wearing a tuxedo. At the time, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the district, which paid $35,000 to settle the lawsuit and also agreed to follow a non-discrimination policy, though it argued such a policy was already in place.
Also in 2010, the ACLU sued the Copiah County School District on behalf of Ceara Sturgis. Sturgis' senior portrait was left out of the Wesson Attendance Center yearbook because she wore a tuxedo in the picture.
The school district reached a settlement to that lawsuit. Now all students are required to wear caps and gowns in senior portraits. The ACLU has also said the agreement called for a picture of Sturgis in the tuxedo to be added to her class composite picture hanging in the school library.