Breaking Bigotry

Some schools won't hear of intolerance; others just don't want to listen

In 1993, Wanda and Brenda Henson, two lesbian lovers, decided to set up shop in Mississippi, a place not particularly known for tolerating alternative lifestyles.

Upping the risk factor, the Hensons veered away from the more cosmopolitan state capital of Jackson in favor of the hard back roads of Ovett, a rural community about 90 miles to the southeast. It was there, they decided, they would clear 120 acres of land for Camp Sister Spirit, conceived as an antihomophobia feminist center and cultural retreat. Behind a lavender iron gate, lesbians would rule.

Now, most folks, conservatives and liberals alike, figured Wanda, a native Mississippian, should have known what to expect. Still the pair themselves professed surprise and dismay at the gunshots, dead animals in the driveway and threatening phone calls that followed almost immediately.

Eric and Donna Nevelow are leaving Santa Fe.
Deron Neblett
Eric and Donna Nevelow are leaving Santa Fe.

In short order, they made 20/20, Jerry Springer and Oprah (herself a Mississippi native). Wanda and Brenda said they got indifference rather than protection from local law enforcement. So, Attorney General Janet Reno sent in federal mediators. The FBI was there for weeks. Supportive groups of lesbians came to town. U.S. Representatives Barney Frank of Massachusetts, who is openly gay, and Jerrold Nadler of New York came. Ovett had never seen so much excitement.

Even supporters of Wanda and Brenda considered them, well, kind of stupid, after all, for setting up in Ovett. Everyone knew those "good Christians" weren't going to tolerate something like the Hensons coming into their midst.

Why hadn't Wanda and Brenda gone where there were more people like them? Why not go where they would have been accepted?

In July 2000, Donna and Eric Nevelow filed suit against the Santa Fe Independent School District, its trustees and superintendent, alleging that their son, Phillip, who turned 14 this July, had been the target of harassment and discrimination for the past two years by fellow students. The Nevelows said they got indifference rather than protection from the school district southeast of Houston.

Phillip was, his parents say, the only practicing Jew in the Santa Fe school district, a district that has received national attention for its call to prayer in school and before football games. Eric Nevelow, a major with the Galveston County Sheriff's office, and Donna both grew up in Galveston. A lot of people thought they should have known there were a lot of "good Christians" in Santa Fe who would not accept a Jew.

Why hadn't the Nevelows gone where there were more people like them? Why not go where they would have been accepted?

If the Hensons hadn't come to Ovett and the Nevelows hadn't come to Santa Fe, the good Christians in each place could have just gone on, well, being good Christians. Right?

The case of the Nevelows vs. Santa Fe ISD probably won't go to court till the start of next year, their attorney Anthony Griffin says. A reading of their federal suit is a long, depressing list of relentless anti-Semitism, ranging from the petty to the terrifying. Santa Fe has yet to file a legal response.

This is what has been happening, according to the Nevelows' civil suit:

On December 4, 1998, Phillip, then 12, was circled in the school yard by about three other students who shouted "Hitler missed one," "No more Jews" and "Heil Hitler." Other students were nearby, able to see and hear what was going on. The school did contact Phillip's parents, but as far as the Nevelows have been able to determine, the other students were not counseled about what they had done.

The following October, Phillip was showing another student how to draw Hebrew letters by doing so on his book cover. Another student came up, said, "I'll show you a foreign language" and drew a swastika on the book cover. Phillip took it to his intermediate school principal, Kenneth Storm. The other student was not suspended, reprimanded or expelled. Phillip's parents were not contacted.

In November 1999, Phillip came into his eighth-grade English class where another student saluted him, saying, "Heil Hitler." Phillip told his parents, who told the principal. The student wasn't punished in any way.

Later that same month, before class, two students drew swastikas on their hands, approached Phillip and held their hands up to his face. Phillip reported that to a third-grade teacher who told Phillip, "They're ignorant, just ignore them." No actions were taken.

Since the seventh grade, according to the suit, Phillip has undergone steady harassment at the hands of two other students who have called him a "dirty Jew." These comments happened on the school bus, within the hearing of the driver, although the driver has denied ever hearing any such comments. This first came to the attention of Donna Nevelow last May 2, when she overheard comments like these standing 50 feet from the bus. Questioned by his mother, Phillip told her this had been going on for two years but the comments were normally accompanied by pushing, shoving and blows as the students made their way to their bus seats.

On May 16, three students threatened to hang Phillip, told him to wander the desert for 40 years and made some statements about hating Jews. Students sitting nearby covered their ears with their hands. This was reported to the Santa Fe Police Department and the principal. The police arrested the three boys. Two of the boys are considering a plea offer from the state; the other one has settled. Galveston County Assistant District Attorney Ella Anderson said she cannot disclose any details of the settlement or offer.

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