Clewiston High School grad lodges complaint of discrimination

LABELLE — A young man who graduated from Clewiston High School in 2012 appeared before the Hendry County School Board at its meeting Tuesday, May 21, to make a public complaint of discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Joshua Deese, now a 25-year-old who recently applied to be a government/social studies substitute teacher at CHS, spoke during the public comments portion of the school board’s meeting. He moved back to Clewiston recently after attending the University of Maryland and working in Washington, D.C., for several years. Mr. Deese cited three instances in which he believed he was discriminated against by the Hendry County School District, both while a minor and as an adult, because he’s gay. He called for the resignation of CHS Principal Roberto Sanchez.

Mr. Deese said he was speaking because he thought his experiences should be brought to the public’s and board members’ attention. He cited the story of San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, who was assassinated in 1978 along with Mayor George Moscone and said, “I have taken it upon myself in my government work to ensure that his death was not in vain. It brings me no pleasure to speak here today.” He said this was important because among young gay people and those struggling with gender issues who are his age or younger, the rate of suicide attempts and suicides is far higher than among any other segment of the population.

Joshua Deese

“As a student I faced much adversity because of who I am. And this was done at the hands of my peers. Along with multiple physical assaults, I was called ‘faggot’ more times than I wish to remember,” Mr. Deese related, “and even after consulting with administrators, they remained silent and complicit.”

He cited three incidents involving Mr. Sanchez:

• “During a trip to Washington, D.C., in 2007 with my AP (Advanced Placement) U.S. history class, I was discriminated against by then-teacher Roberto Sanchez. I paid as much money as everyone else did on the trip. A secret meeting was held with other male students, with me as the target of the meeting. It was asked whether students would be comfortable with a gay student in their rooms. Apparently no one was, and I was forced to sleep like a dog on a hotel room floor in Mr. Sanchez’s room. No other accommodations were made for me, and this was humiliating, as I was sleeping just a few inches from a trash bin.

• “The next year, (when I was) president of the student body, we polled students on creating a gay-straight alliance, which was overwhelmingly popular. Mr. Sanchez opposed this, and held a meeting which he invited me to and said it would create negative publicity and would anger parents.

• “And now I was denied a teaching job while Sanchez is the principal after it was said to me that the superintendent was all for it, was all for me having the job and assured me of this.”

Federal statutes
Mr. Deese said he had contacted the Office of Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education and learned that these types of discriminatory actions are illegal.

“This … is a violation of Title IX, which is a federal civil rights statute; and sex-based discrimination; Title XX, U.S. Code, Chapter 30, Section 1681; and these are also violations of four other federal statutes, the Higher Education Act of 1965, the Vocational Education Act of 1963, the General Provisions Act and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. The law reads that no person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded … or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.

“When the OCR, the Office of Civil Rights, investigated, they say that there is recourse and rescindment of federal funding, and I feel it would be a shame if millions of dollars in federal funding to be taken away from this school board when it’s already hemorrhaging money compared to neighboring school districts. It would be an injustice and a disservice to the students here that we aim to protect,” Mr. Deese asserted.

“I call for the immediate resignation of Roberto Sanchez as principal of Clewiston High School, and I call on this board to amend their non-discrimination policy to include the terms ‘sexual orientation,’ ‘gender identity’ and ‘gender expression’ in their Title IX provisions. Just because things have been and just because things are, does not mean that is how things should be.

‘Gotta give ’em hope’

“Before I go,” he continued, “Harvey Milk said this before he died. Think about it. ‘The farmers, the blacks, the Latinos, the Asians, the seniors, the disabled, the “USes” — without hope, the USes give up. And I know that you cannot live on hope alone, but without it life is not worth living.’”

Then he distributed a “Dear Colleague” letter from the OCR to each board member and Superintendent of Schools Paul Puletti, saying, “And you and you and you and you and you and you — you’ve got to give them hope. You’ve gotta give ’em hope. …

“I truly hope that this county can work toward providing a safe, welcoming and accepting environment for all students, gay or straight, black or white. It does not matter; all students are equal. I appreciate your time and consideration,” Mr. Deese finished.

In an interview later, he stated that the anti-gay bullying he faced started in middle school. “There was a long patter on bullying, both verbal and physical, and the many times that I would bring this up to the administration, they would do nothing about it. The bullying would be allowed to continue occurring, and it seemed that they would meet with me and my parents just for the sake of meeting with us, but nothing really ever changed.”

Mr. Deese has been accepted at the University of California-Riverside for the fall semester to finish bachelor’s and master’s degrees in public policy; he has an associate’s degree in the subject from Palm Beach State College.

School district officials made no comment regarding his presentation at the meeting and did not return calls for comment.

Chris Felker can be reached at cfelker@newszap.com.

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