EL PASO, Texas — An El Paso, Texas school district has strengthened its anti-discrimination policies to prevent bullying of LGBT students and employees after an El Paso teen committed suicide last month after enduring two years of anti-gay bullying.
The El Paso Independent School District (EPISD) voted earlier this week to prohibit discrimination based on gender identity and perceived sexuality. Before the policy update, the district had prohibited discrimination, including harassment, against any student because of race, color, religion, gender, national origin, disability or any other basis prohibited by law.
The move came in response to the death of Brandon Elizares, 16, who took his own life on June 2, after being bullied at school for two years because he did not want to hide the fact that he was gay.
Brandon’s mother, Zachalyn Elizares, said the step taken by the school board is a “baby step” in the right direction.
Elizares said that she is coping with her son’s death as well as she can, but that it’s been especially hard preparing her other children, a daughter and son, for the coming school year.
Daniel Rollings, president of PFLAG El Paso, said it’s going to take more than policy updates to end bullying at schools.
“The school board “is doing this after the fact, and it’s unfortunate because they should have been proactive and preventative,” he said. “This is the kind of thing that should have been in place before Brandon was bullied and ultimately took his life.”
Rollings, who is also the community liaison for the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office Anti-Bullying Coalition, said three-quarters of bullying cases in El Paso have targeted the LGBT community.
“Schools need to have in-services and talk about issues that surround bullying of all kinds,” Rollings said. “Nothing can be done unless it’s reported. That’s why safe zones are important so reporting can be made. Kids need to feel like they can report these instances.”
The El Paso Times reported that EPISD is launching an anti-bullying campaign this fall.
“Teachers and staff will be provided with staff development aimed at identifying and addressing bullying at the campuses,” schools spokeswoman Renee de Santos wrote the paper in an email. “Students in all grade levels will take part in activities aimed at bullying prevention.”
For the coming school year, PFLAG and the University of Texas of El Paso’s Social Work Department will offer “safe zone” training for teachers throughout West Texas and Southern New Mexico, aimed at educating teachers on how to foster a classroom environment in which students can come to them with concerns about discrimination, abuse and bullying and pose questions about drugs, alcohol and sexually transmitted diseases.
Teachers who undergo the training will receive a poster for their classroom that says “This is a safe zone,” and encourages students to talk with someone they trust.