Terrance Heath

The LGBT Hate Crimes Project: Bullied to Death - Asher Brown

Filed By Terrance Heath | November 04, 2010 1:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Media
Tags: Asher Brown, bullying, LGBT hate crimes

When I began hearing a few months ago about the rash gay youth driven to suicide by bullying, I immediately wanted to write about it. But when stophate.jpgI sat down and started taking in the stories, I found I couldn’t. So many of the details were so close to my own experience growing up that I initially found it too painful to write about. In fact, I was a bit surprised that those memories were still as painful as they were, decades after the fact.

I also considered including the stories in the LGBT Hate Crimes Project, because strongly believed that they should be called hate crimes. I was aware, however, that the question was still a subject of debate. Should these cases, involving suicide, be considered hate crimes?

While in most hate crimes injury of death is the result of one person’s actions against another, suicide seems to involve only one actor. Injury or death results from the choices and actions of the victim himself. From that perspective, suicide is a choice that the victim himself makes. After all, there are other choices. Even in situations when choices very few, they are not completely obliterated.

Even when all of the choices available are bad or painful choices, they’re still choices. Even if the alternative to suicide is to continue living with painful, intolerable circumstances, choosing a miserable existence over suicide is still a choice. On the other hand, most mentally healthy adults have enough perspective to remind themselves that “This too shall pass,” and that painful or miserable situations don’t necessarily last forever.

But I had a problem with leaving it at that, for a couple of reasons.

First, suicide may stem from a number of issues. Some -- like mental illness -- cannot be attributed to the actions or choices of others, or even to the victim himself. (No one “chooses” to have a mental illness, in my experience.) Yet, in at least some cases the kind psychological and emotion distress that can lead someone to commit suicide can be the result the actions of others toward the individual. Those actions may or may not be intended to push an individual to commit suicide, but they may be -- and often are -- intended to cause any number of emotional or psychological conditions in the individual targeted -- fear, shame, humiliation, depression, hopelessness, isolation, self-hatred, etc. -- any and all of which may drive some people towards suicide.

And that’s what bullying is basically; words or actions intended to cause fear, shame, humiliation, hopelessness, isolation, etc. in person or person’s targeted. That pretty much goes for hate crimes too. Both are intended not only to cause the victim distress, but send a message to others like the victim, that the same can be meted out to them at any moment. Both can cause those targeted to live more restricted lives by staying away from certain areas, keeping a lower profile, keeping quiet so as not to invite more harassment by calling attention to themselves, limiting their contact with others, etc. -- while those to targeted them for bullying or hate crime go where they please, say what they please, associate with whom they please, etc., as freely as they did before. (After the horrific anti-gay gang attack on three gay men in the Bronx, the New York Times has published a couple of articles that illustrate what it’s like to live with the constant threat of violence and harassment, and how it causes people to lead more restricted lives.)

Even if the decision to ultimately take one’s own life is made and carried out by the victim himself, I don’t think that absolves those whose word or actions caused -- and in some cases was intended to cause -- the severe psychological and emotional distress that leads to suicide. Even if the suicide victim suffered from mental illness or other difficulties in other areas, the words and actions of others can be what pushes the individual past the breaking point. Not knowing of these conditions doesn’t, in my mind, doesn’t absolve those whose actions and choices aggravated or augmented them. That’s something my parents taught me when they advised me to mind how I acted towards and and spoke to others, “Because you never know what someone might be going through.”

Second, all of the above is is even more important when young people -- 18 and under, I mean -- are involved. One of the reasons why the “It Gets Better” campaign is so important is because it directly counters what I call the “tunnel vision” of youth. From my experience, when you’re young it’s easy to develop a kind of “tunnel vision” in which you believe how things are right now is how it’s always going to be, and how you feel right not is how you’re always going to feel.

Maybe it’s due to have less experience to draw upon, but it means that young people facing the psychological battery of bullying need to hear exactly that message from adults who have “been there” and made it to the other side. That’s also why adults have a responsibility to address bullying and do whatever they can to put an end to it. The “It Gets Better” campaign is a great response to the “tunnel vision” problem. But far too often, we’re failing young people where bullying is concerned. Perhaps the “It Gets Better” campaign should have a sister campaign titled “It’s Got To Stop.”

Maybe that would have helped someone like Asher Brown.

Asher Brown’s worn-out tennis shoes still sit in the living room of his Cypress-area home while his student progress report -- filled with straight A’s -- rests on the coffee table.

The eighth-grader killed himself last week. He shot himself in the head after enduring what his mother and stepfather say was constant harassment from four other students at Hamilton Middle School in the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District.

Brown, his family said, was “bullied to death” -- picked on for his small size, his religion and because he did not wear designer clothes and shoes. Kids also accused him of being gay, some of them performing mock gay acts on him in his physical education class, his mother and stepfather said.

The 13-year-old’s parents said they had complained about the bullying to Hamilton Middle School officials during the past 18 months, but claimed their concerns fell on deaf ears.

David and Amy Truong said they made several visits to the school to complain about the harassment, and Amy Truong said she made numerous phone calls to the school that were never returned.

Brown’s school denies receiving any complaints from his parents about bullying -- or any reports form other school employees, students, or parents for that matter. The school did report that Brown’s parents told the school he suffered from PTSD, and asked school counselors to keep an eye on him due to “significant emotional struggle” in the family.

There may have been other issues in play with Brown, but comments from some parents and students support the claim that bullying was not being addressed by the school. Comments by students and parents on at least one news site stat that Brown was bullied for several years and that school officials did nothing to stop it. At a town hall meeting held by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, another student, and friend of Brown’s spoke of his own experience with bullying and the lack of response from school staff.

The contrast between the school’s claims and those of the Truong’s as well as other students and parents can probably be explained by the one parent who spoke up at a school board meeting about bullying at Hamilton.

While that was clearly the majority opinion of those at the meeting, there was a powerful voice of dissent. Parent Roxy Mcdaniel says her Asperger’s challenged son endured bullying at Hamilton for three long and damaging years.

“The bullies are running the halls, the stairwells and the buses. They are everywhere and anywhere the adults aren't,” said McDaniel.

The Cy-Fair Board took no formal action on the issue.

That bears a haunting resemblance to what Brown’s parents said was an act of bullying that occurred the day before his death.

His most recent humiliation occurred the day before his suicide, when another student tripped Brown as he walked down a flight of stairs at the school, his parents said.

When Brown hit the stairway landing and went to retrieve his book bag, the other student kicked his books everywhere and kicked Brown down the remaining flight of stairs, the Truongs said.

Durham said that incident was investigated, but turned up no witnesses or video footage to corroborate the couple’s claims.

Of course there were no witnesses, video footage or other tangible evidence. If there are video cameras in the school, kids who want to avoid getting caught at something will know where they are, avoid them, and refrain from bullying within camera range. Likewise, it’s unlikely they’ll do it in front of school staff. Any students who witness it might be fearful of reporting it because they know it could happen to them, and they’ve seen little done about it before.

I don’t know everything about Brown, his family life, or his school, but I’ve been a 13 year old gay kid in middle school before, and much of what happened to Asher Brown happened to me. I just wish he’d been able to hold on and until it got better. Most of all, I wish the school -- the adults responsible for providing him a safe learning environment -- hadn’t let it get so bad in the first place.

Asher Brown was a thirteen-year-old eight grader, who lived in Cypress, TX, with his mother and stepfather Amy and David Truong. On September 23, 2010, Brown committed suicide by shooting himself with his stepfather’s gun. Brown’s parents claimed Brown was driven to suicide by years of bullying.

Background

Asher Brown 223x 300

Brown, 13, was an eighth grade student at Hamilton Middle School in Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District. 1) David Truong said Brown was an "A" student who loved to read. 2)

Brown was a Buddhist, until shortly before his death. He converted to Christianity in hopes that other students would no longer make fun of his religion. 3)

The day before his suicide, Brown came out to his stepfather. Truong said he did not reject his stepson, and said to him, "We’ll talk about it when you get home. I told him", "You know your mother and I support you." 4)

Bullying

Brown’s parents said he was "bullied to death." The Truong’s claimed that Brown was picked on because of his small stature, his religion, and non-designer clothes and shoes. Students also accused him of being gay, and some performed "mock gay sex acts" on him in his physical education class. 5)

The Truongs said they complained to the school for the past 18 months about their son being bullied, but that their complaints fell on deaf ears. 6) They claimed to have made approximately eight visits and several phone calls to the school but got no response. 7) Initial findings suggest that the Truongs did not contact the school. However, the Truongs had reported that Brown had PTSD, and two weeks before Brown’s death had asked counselors to keep an eye on him due to a "significant emotional struggle within the family," according to the school district.

School district spokesperson Kelli Durham, whose husband Alan Durham is an assistant principle at Hamilton, said no students or school employees, or Brown’s parents ever reported that he was bullied. 9) However, comments from parents on the KRIV-TV website 10), which reported on Brown’s death, stated that Brown had been bullied for several years, and that the school does nothing to stop such harassment. 11) The school district said it conducted a thorough investigation into the allegations of bullying. 12) The findings of that investigation reiterated the school’s earlier stance, that the Truong’s never reported that Brown was being bullied. 13)

Brown’s parents said the last incident of bullying occurred on Wednesday, September 22; the day before Brown took his life. The Truong’s said another student tripped Brown as he walked down the stairs. When Brown hit the landing and tried to retrieve his books, the other student kicked Brown’s books everywhere and kicked Brown the rest of the way down the stairs. 14)

Suicide

At 4:30 p.m., on Thursday, September 24, 2010, Brown was found dead on the floor of his stepfather’s closet, in the family home. Brown used his father’s 9mm Beretta, which was stored one of the closets shelves, to shoot himself. His stepfather, David Truong, found Brown’s body when he returned home. 15)

Aftermath

Memorial

About 250 people attended a memorial for Brown on Saturday, October 2, 2010. 16) Brown’s family planned for about 30 people to attend the memorial at Moore Elementary School. 17)

The Truong’s used the day to thank their son’s friends. "I want them to get a big round of applause, they stood up for Asher," said David Truong, Asher's stepfather. City council member Jolanda Jones attended, and said she knew a young person who committed suicide for the same reason years ago. 18)

A memorial Facebook page set up for Brown received hateful comments. 19)

Community Response

On October 4, 2010, a small group organized by the Foundation for Family and Marriage Equality held a small rally outside of Hamilton Middle school in memory of Brown and to protest bullying. 20) Participants carried signs calling for students to respect one another. The school responded to the rally by canceling after school activities and increasing security officers on campus. 21)

On Monday, October 11, 2010, the Cypress-Fairbanks school board held a meeting to address charges that Hamilton Middle School did not do enough to prevent bullying. Most parents at the meeting spoke in defense of the school. One parent, Roxy McDaniel, said that her son was bullied for three years at Hamilton, and pointed out that bullying usually happens when and where adults are not present. 22)

On Monday, October 18, 2010, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee held a town hall meeting to address bullying, in response to Brown’s death. 23) Brown’s parents, the Truongs, spoke at the meeting. A friend of Brown’s, Garrett McDaniel, also spoke of his own experience with bullying at Hamilton, and the lack of response from school staff.

Advocacy

Brown’s suicide led advocates to push for safe schools legislation.24) State representatives Garnet Coleman and Jessica Farrar announced their intention to introduce an anti-discrimination bill for Texas public schools. Coleman has introduced the bill every session since 2003, but it gained little traction and was repeatedly killed in committee. 25)

The bill would expressly prohibit discrimination and harassment on the basis of ethnicity, color, gender, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, disability, religion, or national origin. Schools have the option of adopting such language, though not all have. "By having it in the state law," Coleman said, "it says to the school district, we think as a state that children dying because of being terrorized at school -- this is a serious public health issue."

"The opposition is from people who believe there is a homosexual agenda," Coleman said. "This is just about protecting kids." 26)

Browns death was one of a string of suicides by LGBT youth that led columnist Dan Savage to launch "It Gets Better," a campaign to prevent LGBT youth suicides.

Investigation

Prosecutors said they would look into what led up to Brown’s suicide. Brown’s parents did not request it investigation but have supported it. "Once they find out what’s been hidden, we would want the people responsible to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law," said Brown’s stepfather, David Truong. 27)

Donna Hawking, spokeswoman for the Harris County District Attorney’s Office confirmed her office was looking into Brown’s suicide, but declined further comment. Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos also said her office would investigate what led to Brown’s suicide. In addition, child protective services are investigating whether factors inside or outside the home might have contributed to Brown’s suicide. 28)


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Primates are pack animals. Humans are primates. Humans are pack animals. The idea that we can push people to suicide or kill them is completely logical. Yes, suicide can be a hate crime, when death by one's own hand is preferable to a living death at the expense of others.

My exchange student was attacked at school for being considered gay. Now I fear for him. His school doesn't take it seriously as a hate crime, and unlike in Arkansas, there will be no call for anyone to address the issue more comprehensively because it's a much larger issue and target than one lone wolf in a tiny school district.

Why do we wait for suicide to act like we did with Clint McCance? when there are active examples everywhere.