Police have arrested a high school student in Washington on hate crime charges for allegedly assaulting a non-binary classmate in a vicious attack at school—but the arrest only came after a student-led protest that was itself the target of more anti-LGBTQ hate.
The 16-year student at Kalama High School was arrested this week for allegedly starting a brutal fight with a classmate, local news outlet KPTV reported. Natasha Wheeler, the parent of the student assaulted, told The Daily Beast Friday that the incident was the culmination of mounting threats that all began when her child started a club for LGBTQ+ students. (Wheeler’s son, who does not want to be publicly identified, prefers the pronouns “they” and “them.”)
“The harassment at school, it’s been ongoing for a while. But when [my son] started the club is when it got real severe and they started targeting all these kids,” Wheeler said. “They pick on any[one who’s] different.”
In a video obtained by KPTV, Wheeler’s child and the 16-year-old student can be seen exchanging punches. The outlet reported that the Kalama Police Department said the suspect used homophobic slurs before allegedly kicking his victim in the head.
“That kid broke his hand on my kid’s skull and knocked [them] out,” Wheeler said. “Then, he stood up and kicked [them] in the head and said, ‘How do you like that?’ with an F-slur.”
The attack, and the school district’s failure to prevent a culture of hate, prompted students to stage a protest at school Monday; yet, the demonstration was disrupted by another student who allegedly threatened to shoot the participants, resulting in a district-wide lockdown and yet another arrest.
“[Students] were out there…making their voice[s] heard, standing up for themselves. Then, they got shot right back down with another threat of violence,” Wheeler said. “It’s ridiculous what’s happening at this school.”
In a letter released by the Kalama School District and reviewed by The Daily Beast, officials acknowledged there was a lockdown due to a threat “made against a group of students assembled in front of the school peacefully demonstrating support for the LGBTQ+ community.”
“While the police determined that the threat was not actionable, no threat against any student or staff member is taken lightly,” the statement said.
But Wheeler accused the district of doing nothing to actually address anti-LGBTQ+ bullying that she alleges has been well-documented, widespread, and constantly ignored. She said harassment increased after her son created a club dedicated to LGBTQ+ students.
“It’s a lot of kids [who] are experiencing this,” she said. “It’s all been reported. It’s all been documented. There’s been a lot leading up to it. In my eyes, [administrators] allowed it to happen.”
That bullying and need for a community was what made her child and other students start the LGBTQ+ club, she said.
“They started with three, and now they have over 30 members,” Wheeler said.
Some people within the Kalama community opposed the club and posted about it—and her son specifically—in a Facebook group, she said.
Wheeler claimed that two students had been shouting homophobic slurs toward her son at school. She alleges she reported the targeted Facebook posts to the police in March and persistently complained to the school about the slurs, but nothing ever happened until it boiled over into the physical fight on June 6.
That day, Wheeler said, her son confronted one of the students. But another student grabbed her son from behind, she said, and threw them to the ground, allegedly knocking her son out and calling them the f-word.
After the fight happened, Wheeler said school administrators just called her but didn’t call for medical help or the police. She said she could immediately tell by her son’s repetitive speech and crying that something was wrong. So, she picked them up from school and took them to the emergency room, she said. Wheeler noted that Kalama High School Principal Heidi Bunker did contact the family to check on her son, but Kamala School District Superintendent Eric Nerison never reached out until Wheeler asked how to file a grievance with the district.
Due to an ongoing investigation, district administrators told The Daily Beast they were limited on information they could share.
“I’ve already filed a lot of documents with a lot of organizations against this school because of the hate speech in the past. I told them…somebody’s going to get hurt at this school,” Wheeler said. “I’ve done all my parental diligence to avoid something like this from happening. And it happened anyways.”
In a letter about the fight to the Kalama School District, which was shared with The Daily Beast, school officials stated, "The actions by one of our students…are not consistent with the values and mission of Kalama School District. We stand with our student body in demanding a school environment free from harassment, abuse and violence, and we thank our students and families for helping to drive the conversation around acceptance, understanding and school safety."
Wheeler, on the other hand, doesn’t think the school district is serious in its handling of discrimination.
“They’re preaching right now they have this zero-tolerance policy, when I’ve been up at the school advocating for zero-tolerance policy, and they flat-out denied it,” she said. “It’s crazy. It’s like the twilight zone.”
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