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.

Because of these verbal and physical attacks, Phillip's grades suffered, and he had to attend summer school. On June 29, he was approached by a student who said, "So you are the Jew." The student then shoved Phillip in the chest, began choking him and placed him in a headlock. This was reported to the police department and Richard Ownby, superintendent of schools. Donna Nevelow asked Ownby not to get involved until the police completed their investigation. But the superintendent left his office, went to the school and reportedly told Phillip's attacker: "If you are smart, you will call the Nevelow kid and apologize."

On October 21, 1999, asked to write an editorial suitable for the school newspaper and told he could write about "any topic about which you feel strongly," Phillip wrote about his experiences with "violence, anti-Semitism and hatred" at the school. He received an F. No counselors were called in to address his feelings; no effort was made to corral the violence.

In November 1999, the district sent Phillip's parents some drawings their son had done. On one, there was a note written by Phillip saying: "It's one of those days when you don't want to wake up and everything is you really don't know why, but you want to rip someone's head off." This arrived with a note from the school saying Phillip's conduct was questionable, his actions disruptive and his grades had dropped. Eric responded with a letter to Principal Storm reminding the school of the anti-Semitic conduct and what he said was the nonresponsiveness of the district to the problem.

Storm admitted in a TV interview with Channel 13's Cynthia Hunt that he should have followed up on Phillip's complaints, according to the suit.

Instead, the suit says, Superintendent Ownby had referred to Phillip's complaints as something he created himself, "mostly as petty-type things which Phillip may have instigated." Board member John Clayton has referred to the Nevelows' complaints as "trite."

All these acts by the district, the suit claims, were "part and parcel of the defendants' conduct that encouraged students, parents and supporters of the district's prayer in school crusade to disrespect and dishonor any religion or belief not their own."


Danielle Sokolow is a 17-year-old senior at Clear Brook High School in the Clear Creek Independent School District. She is one of five Jews in her school.

Two years ago some guys at her school -- she had known them for years -- started calling to her, "Hey, it's the Jew. Here comes the Jew." She took it as a joke at first, casual teenager teasing. Then it started occurring more often: "Jew, hey, Jew." It made her mad, but she didn't tell anyone, hoping it would just go away.

She opened up her locker one Friday and a note fell out. On the outside, it read, "To the Jew." Inside, it said, "Hey Jew. Where's your number?" And it had a big swastika on it.

"It brought tears to my eyes. I kind of went to class." Danielle told a teacher she was close to, who urged her to go to the principal. Danielle said no, she didn't want to do that, and made the teacher promise to let her handle it.

When she went back to her locker later in the day, one of the guys who'd been calling her "Jew" was hanging around it. She challenged him; he grabbed the note and ran away. Danielle called after him, even more upset now that she had lost the note, her proof of what had happened.

That weekend she told her parents, who called the boy's parents. She didn't expect that to do much for her life in school, though. That's a separate world from parents. She also told a couple of her close friends what had happened. These close friends happened to be African-American, and they were outraged. By the time she got to school again Monday, word had been spread.

"Everyone knew this was a big deal. This was not something you do. All these people at my school, I had all these people against these four guys."

She ran into one of the kids involved in baiting her, and instead of his usual routine, Danielle says, he hurried past her without saying anything. Later that day, she was called to the office and told to talk to the sergeant who worked in the school. He had heard about the incident, questioned her about it, confirmed it.

"He talked to the parents, threatened to take their kids to jail. That pretty much solved it."

Danielle, who ultimately reported what happened to the Anti-Defamation League, seems mature far beyond her years when she talks about how people say dumb things, often not realizing they are anti-Semitic or not realizing that she is Jewish. These jokes aren't funny, she says. They hurt. Most people, she says, think the days of anti-Semitism are over. "They think, "Oh, that's gone. It's not here anymore.' "

Still, though, Danielle is fortunate in many regards. She attends a school that clearly demonstrated zero tolerance for anti-Semitism. This came not only from a proactive administration but also from its students. What these guys had done was not cool. And they got shut down.


The concluding part of the federal civil suit is where the Nevelows ask for damages. They are asking for $4,000 to cover the cost of moving Phillip to the Galveston Independent School District -- according to his mother last week, "He's thriving there." They are asking for treatment costs not to exceed $10,000 for Phillip for whatever he needs for counseling. They are asking emotional damages of $2 million for Phillip and $1 million each for the parents.

They are asking for $100,000 for the expected difference in cost between the sale of their old home and the new one they want to move to -- somewhere else. "The relocation of the family is required and necessary with respect to the current condition of the minor child."

So the Nevelows have given up on Santa Fe. After 15 years.

The Hensons never did that. They've stuck it out. They still get hate mail, but they have an even larger collection of letters of support. They're tolerated in the community, living beside it if not "of" it. They operate a food bank that feeds about 200 people every third week of the month. Some churchgoers have accepted them, if not their sexual orientation or beliefs. Mennonite volunteers came in to build a ramp for a wheelchair-bound woman. The Good Samaritan Center works with them. They get support from a small Unitarian Universalist church nearby.

In 1997, Brenda and Wanda, writing in The Progressive Woman's Quarterly, said many people had asked them why Mississippi. "We do it because Mississippi is our home. When you move because you are forced, you become a political refugee. Fundamentalists do not have a right to force their religious understandings on us.For us, being refugees is not an option."

The Nevelows are in something of a different position. Though people around here have certainly rallied to their cause, this is not just a case of two adults deciding to take a stand and hold their ground. The Nevelows have children to protect, their son and an older daughter as well. And so much damage has been done already. They can't be there every minute of every day to stop this. And the adults to whom they've entrusted their son's care, well, it appears they've done a pretty lousy job of fulfilling this sacred trust.

In Clear Creek ISD, Danielle Sokolow got complete support and action from her school administration, even though she hadn't asked for help. Name-calling and a nasty note was all it took. In Santa Fe, a child, younger by three years, was harassed, threatened and physically attacked for two years. And the administration did nothing.

Danielle's fellow students joined in to fight the bigots; in Santa Fe the other kids reportedly covered their eyes and ears.

At a press conference on August 15 after the suit was filed, Donna said both she and her husband have had their vehicles vandalized. She said they had been careful to keep their son out of the limelight for fear of repercussions against him. She was afraid to travel anywhere with her son, that by doing so, he would be identified.

Eric says he doesn't think everyone in Santa Fe is bad. The problem, he says, is that the school district didn't protect his son; it didn't stop students from attacking him.

Donna spoke on September 14 at the launch of an effort by the Anti-Defamation League and Barnes & Noble called Close the Book on Hate. She talked about how hate and apathy work together to create disaster. "Hate only shows itself when it's ready to strike, and then it's too late." But apathy, she said, "Apathy is the most horrendous form of prejudice. It nurtures hate."

Santa Fe may indeed be a wonderful place to live, filled with great, caring people living up to the highest of ideals, Christian or otherwise. Right now, though, its image is far less wholesome than that.

Right now, Santa Fe appears to be a community that shows itself more and more as intolerant, mean-spirited and hateful. And every teacher, every school administrator, every adult who hears something racist or sexist or prejudiced in any form and who closes his ears and eyes to it, that person has indeed failed his sacred mission. That is not training the next generation in the way they should go. And those who step aside to bigotry should be miserably ashamed. And those who find all this appalling, who haven't known this is going on, well, for God's sake, wake up.

Or they'll be coming for you, too. Soon.

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