District denies allegations

About 80 people recently attended a meeting at CAMP Rehoboth to discuss the culture at Cape Henlopen schools and its effects on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning  -- those unsure of their sexual orientation -- students.

Many people voiced concern that LGBTQ students were being bullied and treated unfairly by both students and staff. Several students were in attendance, and one of them, 2017 Cape graduate Adrian D’Antoni, took the opportunity to explain how he felt.

“With administration not following through [on bullying policies], we’re left to fend for ourselves. We have to figure out our own ways of avoiding confrontation and avoiding getting beat up – yeah, for real – beat up, ostracized, absolutely degraded until you feel like dirt on a daily basis,” he said. “And to have an authority figure that is supposed to protect you do nothing about it, even after you’ve talked to them a million times, it’s the worst feeling on the face of the planet.”

One student’s struggle

Arianna Carpenito, a 17-year-old who also graduated from Cape Henlopen High School this year, has been vocal about her experiences at school as someone who identifies as LGBTQ. Her father is a military contractor and so far in life, she’s lived in four states. She started at Cape as a junior.

Earlier this year, she and several others wore t-shirts to school that read “Cape condones racism, sexism, homophobia, bullying.” According to Carpenito, she was told she could not wear the shirt because it was disruptive, which is a violation of the school’s code of conduct, and was not allowed to return to school until a parent could accompany her to discuss the shirt with the administration. In total, she said, she missed about two days of school. Another student was made to change out of the shirt, but it’s unclear whether any of the other students wearing the shirt were addressed or disciplined.

Carpenito makes many accusations against the district, including that one teacher failed to report her complaints of sexual harassment by other students, that another teacher often made derogatory comments about homosexuals to students, that an administrator blamed her for provoking harassment and that she was denied access to her student file.

“It’s a good old boy town,” she said. “If you’re a white boy on the football team, you can do no wrong. I was treated differently from the beginning.”

However, the CHSD is between a rock and a hard place when it comes to defending themselves against accusations from students.

“Arianna can say whatever she wants,” said public relations coordinator Alyssa Titus, “Because she’s not bound by the same laws as the school district. We can’t comment on anything regarding students or personnel.”

That said, allegations similar to Carpenito's have been made by multiple students, enough to cause CAMP Rehoboth, Equality Delaware and the American Civil Liberties Union to host a community meeting on Monday, June 19, “in response to recent media and community discussion regarding the culture toward LGBTQ students in Cape Henlopen schools.”

Community concern

A Facebook event page for the community meeting at CAMP Rehoboth stated that as leaders in the LGBTQ community, organizers are concerned about situations in which students may feel unsafe, unsupported or unwelcome at school.

“Nationwide, we see public support and affirmation of LGBTQ students growing, and it is important to us and to our community that we ensure that we do everything possible to foster a culture at Cape Henlopen schools that reflects that support and affirmation,” the statement read.

The meeting, led by CAMP Rehoboth Director Steve Elkins, featured speakers Karla Fleshman of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Delaware, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Delaware’s mentor to the CHHS Gay Straight Alliance Gary Colangelo, Legal Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware Rich Morse, Equality Delaware President Mark Purpura and Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays Lewes chapter founder Linda Gregory.

Most of the conversation involved the CHSD’s alleged lack of action against bullies of LGBTQ students. Madison Couture, an LGBTQ CHHS student, said she’s been bullied, discriminated against and harassed at school.

“They lose my reports. I’ve not had one thing resolved,” she said. “You think students are the only ones that can be bullies. That’s not the truth at all. Teachers and administrators can be too.”

Forrest Carle, another LGBTQ CHHS student, agreed.

“Cape isn’t addressing any of the issues that have been brought up,” Carle said.

Many of the adults at the meeting expressed the need for continuous action to pressure the district to follow through with their bullying and harassment policies.

Morse offered his organization’s assistance.

“If we at the ACLU knew about a specific incident right after it happened, or lots of specific incidents, we could do something about it,” he said. “I got one phone call years ago from a parent at Cape and nothing much happened, but if we got complaints from a dozen students or students’ parents we’d have a greater ability to get Cape to make changes.”

Morse urged any Delaware student that feels bullied, harassed or discriminated against to visit aclu-de.org and click the “Get Help” button.

School policies

The CHSD’s board policies are published on their website. The document spells out student punishments for up to four offenses of bullying, including detention, in-school suspension, out-of-school suspension for up to 10 days, expulsion and police contact. The punishment for each offense is up to the discretion of teachers and administrators.

Also according to CHSD policies, all district employees are prohibited from “persistent and/or obvious ridicule, public embarrassment or any unfair treatment of students.”

Though the specific actions to be taken when employees violate this policy are not listed, Titus, Cape’s public relations coordinator, said there is a range of actions, depending on the situation, that can be taken when a staff member is found to unfairly treat a student.

“It is not ignored, without a doubt,” Titus said.

CHSD Superintendent Bob Fulton also defended the district.

“The Cape Henlopen School District has a diverse student population which is the strength of our district and community. We support all students through various clubs, activities and programs, and we are proud of the inclusive culture found in each of our schools,” he said. “All allegations made by students are treated seriously and thoroughly investigated by our administrative team.”

However, due to the district’s legal obligations, neither Titus nor Fulton could comment on actions that may or may not have been taken against specific staff members Carpenito and others accuse of violating district policies.

The Delaware Code has its own policies on bullying that all Delaware schools must abide by. Regardless of whether an incident can be substantiated, all reported incidents of bullying must be reported to the Department of Education within five working days. However, due to privacy laws, only a lawsuit would allow information regarding specific complaints to be released.

In addition, the DOE is required by law to prepare annual reports on substantiated incidences of bullying. The CHSD numbers have waxed and waned since 2011, when the reports were first compiled. In the 2015-2016 school year, the latest report available, 18 incidences of bullying were substantiated in the CHSD, as compared to 26 in 2014-2015 and 13 in 2013-2014.

Other districts

Other Delaware school districts have policies to address LGBTQ issues in the same way that Cape does. Some of those policies are more specific than others.

In the neighboring Indian River School District, students are subject to the same statewide bullying policies as at Cape. Staff ethics requirements include respecting “the basic dignities of all individuals.”

In the Caesar Rodney School District, staff conduct policies go a bit further, to include “refraining from any manner of speech or conduct that can be construed as derogatory, demeaning, offensive or harassing.” Along with the statewide anti-bullying policy, one of students’ responsibilities in the CRSD is to “accept every person as an individual human being and to promote group relations and understand.”

In the Appoquinimink School District, bullying policies call for at least one day of detention and a parent/guardian conference. Perhaps most importantly, employees are expressly forbidden from demeaning anyone based on their sexual orientation.

Dan Foskey, a longtime CAMP Rehoboth volunteer who identifies as LGBTQ, spoke at the meeting about policies. According to him, they have no value if they aren’t enforced.

“It’s lip service,” he said. “And it doesn’t mean a damn thing.”