Girl Was Punished for Having 2 Moms
Published: May 7, 2010
Jenna Bissell says she sat in her fifth-grade class for hours with a gash on her face, dried blood between her loosened permanent teeth, cut lips and a swollen nose. She had tripped on the playground.
But Bissell says her teacher never asked about her injuries or sent her to the nurse. Her parents were never called. And Bissell believes she was treated this way because her parents are lesbians.
"I think it started because my moms are gay," Bissell said Friday.
Bissell's parents are preparing to bring a civil rights suit against Rio Rancho Public Schools, where Bissell attended Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School. The family has since moved her to another school, where they say she is earning A's and B's and making friends.
Officials at Rio Rancho Public Schools said they could not comment on specifics of the case, but said discriminating against a student because of the makeup of her family would violate district policy.
"We're very diligent about making sure we respect all students," said Tonna Burgos, executive director of Student Services for RRPS.
Shannon Peterson, one of Bissell's mothers, said she called the school after Bissell came home injured on Feb. 26. She said she talked to Bissell's teacher, asking why she hadn't been notified and why the girl went without treatment.
Peterson said she asked, "Is this because she has two moms?" and that the teacher replied with a raised voice that yes, this was the reason and that Peterson should take her children to another school.
District spokeswoman Kim Vesely said any teacher who discriminated against a student would be disciplined. Bissell's former teacher is still teaching and Vesely would not say whether she has been disciplined, citing personnel privacy. Vesely also said "there are differing versions of what occurred," but declined to give the district's version.
Peterson said there was a pattern of tension between Bissell and her teacher, including over an assignment in which students were asked to write a book about themselves. On one page, they were asked to write about something they did over the summer, and Bissell said she wrote about her parents' wedding in Iowa, where gay marriage is legal.
"She threw out the whole page about where my moms got married and how beautiful it was," Bissell said, referring to the teacher. "She said, 'This is gross, this is horrible, you need to write about something else.'"
Peterson said they kept Bissell in the class until the injury occurred, hoping the situation would improve. "We try to teach her that there's going to be people like this all through life, and you're going to have to live with it and try to stick it out," Peterson said.
Bissell's family initially sought money from the school district for the girl's medical expenses, but the claim was rejected by the district's liability insurance. They have now notified the district that they plan to sue for negligence and violation of Bissell's civil rights. The family's attorney, Chris Foster, said he is preparing a civil complaint that will be filed next week.
"We don't send our kids to school in New Mexico to get hurt and to learn hatred and intolerance," Foster said. He said his suit will aim to show a pattern of harassment.