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In the current social climate, what is going unseen at Free State?

Standing in front of Freddy the Firebird for the last time, Brittany Swearingen says goodbye to Free State at semester, making the decision to complete her high school education through the Lawrence Virtual School.

Standing in front of Freddy the Firebird for the last time, Brittany Swearingen says goodbye to Free State at semester, making the decision to complete her high school education through the Lawrence Virtual School.

Gabrielle Wheeler

Gabrielle Wheeler

Standing in front of Freddy the Firebird for the last time, Brittany Swearingen says goodbye to Free State at semester, making the decision to complete her high school education through the Lawrence Virtual School.

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It seems our safety should be indisputable—of course we are safe at school, and when we aren’t we always have someone to turn to for help. The reality, however, is that students in our school are constantly forced into environments where we are hated for aspects of ourselves that are viewed as different, and the administration does nothing about it.

Our generation has a unique perspective. Many people, equipped with the privilege of being able to, believe bigotry is in the past. Those people may think that because their favorite show has a Black man character (who is underwritten and discarded), racism doesn’t exist. Or that because there was a white lesbian in a movie once, homophobia is cured. Others of us are not so fortunate to be blinded by feigned diversity. Many are forced to be around our oppressors without any opportunity of escape. No matter the ignorance and hatred we face outside of school, our learning environments should be untainted, and it is the duty of our administration to uphold this sentiment.

In my two and a half years at Free State, I have had been the recipient of a smorgasbord of hate-fueled experiences . My first year here, an upperclassman told me that gay people were unnatural and that he was disgusted by our existence. I was shocked by the blatant homophobia. I asked him what he meant and if he knew that his statement was homophobic. He immediately, clearly and loudly screamed profanity at me in response to my “accusation” of his homophobia. A teacher who was friends with this student heard him clearly, but swiftly resumed class without question.

My sophomore year, I had a racist boy harass me for a full semester on indisputable issues such as whether or not Black people actually face oppression, or that we shouldn’t joke about the brutal murders of masses of people. This boy took every opportunity to yell at me personally in multiple classes. I went to the administration half a dozen times for help getting out of the situation. My counselor did nothing. The student was only sent to the office when he shouted at my English teacher Amanda Frederick who attempted to explain he was being racist and ignorant. He was never held accountable for the weeks he spent yelling and interrupting me. This student continues to menace women of color in the classroom and has not faced consequences.

The lack of support from my peers, teachers and administration has left me feeling broken. More days than not I have gone home in tears. There was nothing I could do to escape this harasser and I was entirely powerless. ”

After this incident, I learned a lot about our student body. So many people who had never had any issue with me were suddenly hating me on the bases of my identity. They were outraged by the fact that I had the audacity to stand up for myself. Even more than those against me were the students who claimed to be supporting me. But while I was being hounded and mocked, all of my self-proclaimed allies chose to do nothing. Everyone is free to define ally as they choose, but to me, those voices that chose to remain silent while I was intimidated in the classroom day after day for months didn’t express solidarity when I needed it.

The lack of support from my peers, teachers and administration has left me feeling broken. More days than not I have gone home in tears. There was nothing I could do to escape this harasser and I was entirely powerless. This was my first clue our administration doesn’t have the interests of all their students in mind and was the first time I felt unsafe at Free State.

This year, as a junior, I joined the Gay Straight Alliance. I thought that after all my experiences of being harassed, I would find a sense of community. I was unfortunately incorrect. My experience in this non-intersectional club left me more broken than before. As a member of the group, I tried to do my best by participating and helping fellow members. This included sending trigger warnings of things fellow LGBT students might be exposed to, including warnings against homophobic content in school theatrical productions. These productions featured numerous jokes and microaggressions geared towards gay people, like an instance of laughing at the prospect of someone’s non-heterosexuality, or the use of HIV/AIDS terminology as a joke.

The response to my warning was that I had defaced a performance that, in my opinion, deserved to be called out. The accuser acknowledged all of these problems and still decided they weren’t valid. The club president claimed to “appreciate” my trigger warnings, but then immediately disregarded them and decided to promote the homophobic production.

The resulting action from members of GSA was to out my identity as a member (thereby outing my sexuality) and mock me publicly in school and at performances of this production for my “over-sensitivity.” By standing by and letting this happen without protest, GSA was complicit with those who outed me and shared my private messages. There is no excuse for inaction in this situation. I spoke with the GSA sponsor about being outed and the compromised safe space, but the only action taken, to my knowledge, is a reminder to not out members, laying blame on me for not making it clear I was not out to everyone. In typical LGBT spaces, secrecy is assumed to preserve the safety of members. I left the group when it became clear that they weren’t respecting intersectional members.

This year, I had two teachers act hatefully toward me. The first treated me unfairly in the classroom by ignoring me: specifically, my requests to use the restroom. She would also mock the content questions that I asked. This went on for weeks because of reasons unknown to me. I switched out of the class mid-quarter to avoid further harassment.


When the teachers of a school are acting unfairly towards specific students, it is is the duty of the administration to fix such issues.”

The second teacher, with whom I have never had personal interaction, decided that I was personally attacking them when I chose to call out the not-so-subtle microaggressions that I witnessed, and they wanted to attack back. This teacher presented numerous homophobic jokes in their productions, specifically the fall Black Box production, Love Awkwardly. This show also promoted sexist narratives such as “girls that hate girly girls, and feel superior because of it” which furthers the ideology that girls who don’t conform to typical roles are somehow superior to those who do, which pits women against each other.

When I brought these items to the attention of enough people that some actually started to care, the teacher became vicious and demanded that I not be allowed near them or their classrooms. When the teachers of a school are acting unfairly towards specific students, it is is the duty of the administration to fix such issues.

Many people do not believe my stories of bullying at Free State. Those people reflect only on their own personal experiences and thus do not comprehend how truly dire the situation can become for the less-privileged and targeted students. To ignore the lives of people in different circumstances dismisses that person’s entire struggle. When students are faced with acts of hatred, we need to be able to rely on our teachers, administration and fellow students to rectify and remove the situation. As too many of us have seen, when it comes to prejudiced bullying we do not have our school to rely on.


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14 Responses to “In the current social climate, what is going unseen at Free State?”

  1. Anonymous on December 21st, 2016 10:29 pm

    *low income family
    Not low once

  2. Anonymous on December 21st, 2016 10:32 pm

    …free state does not pay attention to anything. When I went there, I had several experiences of abuse/neglect.
    1.) I come from a low income family. Our phone/internet got shut off and I missed a couple days of school because of the flu. (While our phone was on, we had called and said I wouldn’t be there that day and our phone was shut off the next day.) the vice principal yelled at me (16 year old) because “You can’t just NOT have a phone” and basically told me that my dad (single parent) needs to make more money to pay bills.
    2.) I am a recovering drug addict. I got caught INJECTING heroin at school in the bathroom…and a teacher just looked at me and walked out of the bathroom.
    3.) I wanted to prove a point to a friend..that no one gave a crap about the students. I was in geometry and snorted cocaine in class… no one noticed; or atleast no one did anything. (yes stupid decision but I was right)
    Freestate needs to pay more attention to what’s happening to their students.
    All schools do.
    I went to a consular several times for bullying from the same kids over three years and all they did was tell the kids to apologize to me each time.

  3. Melinda Toumi on December 21st, 2016 10:43 pm

    I believe you. And I’m sorry. And I’m glad you’ve decided to complete your education. If you need support in a science class look me up on Facebook. IDK how else to help you right now.

  4. Jordan Boyd on December 21st, 2016 10:46 pm

    Jordan Boyd, aforementioned GSA sponsor here. You shouldn’t have been outed to the school (club membership doesn’t mean a student is part of the LGBT+ community–we have straight members–but I understand that not all students are safe enough in their personal lives to be open even with membership), and club conversations should not have been made public. That being said, what is the punishment I can levy? To my knowledge we don’t know who made the convo public, so we can’t kick anyone out. I’m not sure what further action I could have taken, other than instruct students to stop using group chat, but as club sponsor that’s not my choice–that’s the choice of our club leadership, and having a private text space for a group like GSA makes total sense anyway. (I’m not on the group chat, because I don’t want students to have my phone number.) Our club presidents also are not ok with group chats being made public, but again, what can they do? They aren’t to blame for any of that. Tell me how to fix the situation, Brittany.

    We should all be willing to have open conversations, but we should know that not everyone is going to agree. I attended the play, and I communicated with students and staff about it, because of your concerns. It was difficult to find anyone who shared your views. Not everyone, myself included, is going to agree that jokes about cooties are veiled references to AIDS. Not everyone is going to think that the dance team’s performance is cultural appropriation. Not everyone feels the same way about the CI3T program’s tickets or just about anything else at Free State, or anywhere else in this country, for that matter. The worst thing we can do is stop productive conversations about equity-related issues because we’re afraid to offend or get offended, though. It’s ok to expect and accept non-closure sometimes. I look forward to respectfully taking part in those conversations that can help Free State move forward, and I invite you and everyone else to do the same.

  5. Michael Harris on December 22nd, 2016 12:38 am

    High School should not be this tough. Just remember there are those out there to support you, even after the recent elections or directly in spite of those elections. It TRULY does get better.

    Widower father, raising twins daughters ?

  6. Zia Kelly on December 22nd, 2016 12:49 am

    This is one of the most powerful student-written editorials I’ve come across. I edited the LHS newspaper for two years and, though I love scholastic press, I think often times in high school journalism writers will dance around the real issues at stake. This really gets to the point in an effective way. Thank you so much for sharing.

  7. Sydney on December 22nd, 2016 3:12 am

    As a Free State alum, this sadly sounds like business as usual. Unending, if not universal, harassment, and a faculty who either is completely uncaring or whom will offer nothing but hollow sympathy, And a general lack of belief that “those problems” occur here, too. I’m saddened to see that there has been no real progress. I wish you the best of luck

  8. Alfadarius on December 22nd, 2016 3:39 am

    As a former student at FSHS some years past, I find this author’s opinion agreeable; chiefly that many teachers as well as nearly the entire administrative body are selfishly or politically motivated to brush student concerns under the carpet. During my 3 year stay at FSHS, I met only a small handful of teachers who were interested in earnestly asking my opinion or were willing to confront me about the turmoils that plagued me while I was in or out of school. Of course, not all teachers should necessarily be expected to emotionally invest in every single child in their classroom, but the fact remains that many are much more willing to ignore the problems of the student and revert to disciplinary action if the student is socially or verbally perturbed. Such was my case, thus, many days I walked out of the building no more than 20 minutes after my parent dropped me off at 6:50. Some months later I found myself in a quagmire of absences and the assistant administrator “Mr. Hill” put me in a room with all of my teachers and both of my divorced parents, and told me that I was alone to blame for my troubles.

    I am sorry to say an adolescent may get into plenty of trouble on their own accord, but it is the school’s responsibility to offer some support to any troubled individual in the interest of mitigating a “spiraling out-of-control” situations to those individuals, like myself, who had very little support structures at all in the first place. To add insult to injury, my designated school counsellor committed suicide, and all my semblance of comfort or safety completely evaporated from school grounds. Indeed, I also dropped out and pursued a virtual degree, which I did achieve. Congratulations to Brittany for seeing between the lines and standing her ground. Best of luck achieving a higher standard in the future.

  9. A FSHS staff member on December 22nd, 2016 6:57 am

    My heart is breaking over this. As a staff member, I first want to say I believe you. I have (and have had I the past) several students who fit in various places on the LGBTQ+ spectrum and I KNOW they have had similar battles. Battles with students, with teachers (absolutely infuriating), and with admins (just as infuriating).

    I’m mad now that I understand an email thread in which the play you’re speaking of was défended. I didn’t see the show but when the thread started I remember thinking “straight people do not get to decide what is homophobic”. Nor do white people get to say what is racist. I’m mad that you were not heard. I’m mad that people refuse to see that even unintentional microaggressions (I am not saying what you experienced was unintentional…just that even IF they’re unintentional) still cause pain.

    I’m so incredibly sorry that this has been your Free State. A bit ironic, no? I know this nasty homophobic attitude exists among my peers, And it makes me livid. The world treats people of color, and the community of LGBTQ+ people harshly. They shouldn’t and I hope that it’ll change in a hurry. But school teachers? The one place many kids have to have any hope of security should be able to provide it to all students. Period. ALL students. And I know that some staff members are failing miserably at providing a safe and inclusive space. It doesn’t matter that it’s “not all staff”. One is one too many. Some of us try our very best to respect the dignity and humanity of all student and I’ll take any kid to task if they threaten their classmates. It is sickening that some members prefer to join in on the mockery.

    I’m sorry FSHS has not been what you needed. I’m sorry the safety we attempt to provide was not extended to you. I wish I had known you in your time here because maybe things would have been different. I wish you peace in the future and I promise I’m in the corner of all students like you who need someone to fight with them.

  10. Sue Haley on December 22nd, 2016 2:34 pm

    I’m so very sorry these things have been happening to you. There’s no excuse for it and the school administration should be ashamed of their neglectful and hateful behavior. I hope you do well in online learning, and that you don’t get too isolated. Love wins over hate. Love and companship are vital to a happy heart. Merry Christmas.

  11. Jane Doe on December 22nd, 2016 5:38 pm

    From the bare bones of this story, it seems like a horrible tale on one singled out young lady against the system. However, this is a very one sided tale, where the accused have not been given a voice, and all are quick to assume her account of events is accurate. I can only imagine the accused would have much to say in their defense. Philosophically speaking, it is pretty rare that a human has the capability of being cruel to this level, much less multiple people of multiple age groups, all of which are in highly accountable positions, in one small demographic ( a very liberal demographic at that) . I feel anyone with discerning eyes can see this is a young lady who is hurting, but her object of anger is confused. Usually, if everyone is out to get you, the problem is usually you. Turn that mirrored reflection back at yourself and see what you are reflecting to cause so much conflict. Forgive those who have hurt you.

  12. Andrew on December 23rd, 2016 11:00 am

    Thanks for sharing this.
    If nothing else, you helped me prep for the stresses my kids will face.
    Hoping you find the safe spaces you (and everyone) deserve.

  13. Sarah doyle on December 23rd, 2016 2:15 pm

    Bravery young lady. That’s what you have. Keep speaking even when you are intimidated. You are much stronger that you realize. Thinking of you.

  14. Brad Greenwood on January 5th, 2017 4:22 pm

    I can’t apologize for or explain other people’s behaviors and attitudes. What I can do is hope that you felt safe in my classroom while you were here. If not, then that’s on me, and I profusely apologize for that.
    You are an incredibly brave young lady and I was proud to have you in my classroom. If you are in the building and ever need someone to talk to, please know that I will always take time for you… or any other student that just needs to talk with someone.

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In the current social climate, what is going unseen at Free State?