Jewlyes Gutierrez, a transgender student in Hercules, Calif., was often harassed at school by a small but terrorizing group of students. When one student spit gum in Gutierrez’s face, Gutierrez complained to school officials about the harassment. But they didn’t take steps to intervene correctly. So Gutierrez took matters into her own hands and fought back.
Gutierrez and the other students all were suspended. But Gutierrez’s punishment went further. The Contra Costa County district attorney pressed misdemeanor battery charges against Gutierrez.
There’s now a movement to get those charges dropped.
“The district attorney has discretion to decide whether or not to bring charges,” says Transgender Law Center legal director Ilona Turner. “We call on him to drop these criminal charges immediately and instead to work with the families and students involved to find an alternative means of resolving their conflict without putting an already vulnerable young person through a criminal prosecution.”
The momentum is growing daily: An online petition has garnered more than 120,000 signatures, with about 29,000 needed to reach the goal. Turner says that on Monday the National Center for Lesbian Rights sent a letter to the district attorney; other groups are sending letters of support this week.
Gutierrez is not the first harassment victim in the West Contra Costa Unified School District. A report last September by the federal Office of Civil Rights found sexual harassment to be rampant in the district. In 2009, the district gained national notoriety after a student was gang-raped outside a dance.
Hoping to guide schools to greater tolerance, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill in August mandating that transgender students be recognized by California schools in accordance with their chosen gender. However, a repeal effort is under way.
According to the Transgender Law Center, transgender students face extremely high rates of bullying and harassment in schools. A recent survey conducted by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network found that 89 percent of transgender students were harassed at school. The "National Transgender Discrimination Survey" found that among transgender students who had been bullied, harassed, or assaulted while they were in school, half reported having attempted suicide.
“I find it heartening that there is so much support arising for Jewyles, both from the community, the school district, and her family members,” Turner says. “It seems clear that this is a young person who is surrounded by a lot of love and support by her community, and the significance can’t be overstated for her long-term resiliency and well-being.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the third-leading cause of death for kids ages 10 to 24. Myriad research has found bullying is a top factor in youth suicide. One study by Yale University states that bully victims are two to nine times more likely to consider suicide than non-victims.
“Unfortunately, bullying is a major issue, and we won’t see it going away any time soon with social media and digital communication,” Kerri Quintal, a family law, adult, and juvenile criminal defense attorney in North Attleboro, Mass, says. “The bullying of 1950 was a fistfight in the parking lot, and it was over. But now because of how things have escalated, we have severe consequences.”
Many are saying that the district attorney should never have gotten involved in the Gutierrez case. They cite the situation with Gutierrez as an example of the “school-to-prison pipeline” that the Obama administration has just released guidelines to curb. According to those guidelines, the school should have attempted to resolve the bullying problem without resorting to suspension, which separates kids from education, or the involvement of law enforcement.
Gutierrez is represented by Kaylie Simon, a public defender. In a statement, Simon said, “Just because the District Attorney's office can prosecute something doesn't mean they should, or that it's in the best interest of a child and society to pursue. If we take a step back and look at what are our community's needs and society's needs, it would be something much different from becoming a delinquent in the court system. That can cause more harm than good. I also wonder what message does it send to people who bully when someone who is a victim is prosecuted?”