In 2010, Washington State passed a law to fight bullying and hold schools responsible. But maybe we’ve approached it all wrong. Just ask a bully.
First person to call Brandon Christensen a “faggot”? That’d be me.
Nineteen eighty-four. In the Afton Elementary boys room. I can still smell the piss that had nearly crested the rim of the backed up toilet, the acrid yellow pool for which Brandon’s blond head was destined. I watched Charlie Jensen, his face split by a jagged, chipped-tooth grin, and two of his toadies drag Brandon by the arms toward the site of what was going to be the grossest swirly in the history of Star Valley. Brandon struggled to break free, squirmed until his shirt was pulled nearly over his shoulders before he blurted the five words that would change both of our lives. “Charlie. No. I love you.”
That’s when I went in for the kill.
I figured it was either him or me. I was the smallest kid in my sixth grade class, but I had a couple things going for me that had so far kept me off the radar of guys like Charlie*. My family had recently moved from Northern California, and everyone in Afton, Wyoming, it seemed at the time, wanted to be from California. My dad had just bought the biggest house in town, a gambit made possible solely through the sale of our home on the coast and the relative real estate values in each market. So in sixth grade I hung out with some of the most popular kids in my class, and because of that, despite my size, no one messed with me.
But it was a fragile order. Afton, population 2,000, is a rugged logging and agriculture town founded in the 1880s by Mormon settlers—including my great-great-grandfather—and it doesn’t suffer wimps. As a young male, you were strong or good at sports, or you were nobody. The only truly famous person to hail from Afton is Rulon Gardner, the Greco-Roman wrestler and Olympic gold medalist.
Rulon’s my cousin. It’s safe to say, though, that he and I share very few genetic traits. Rulon’s built like André the Giant. I’m built like Urkel on a crash diet. So I always felt like I was one bully’s bad afternoon away from getting my ass handed to me. It seemed a miracle that I was able to stave off beatings and hang with the cool kids.
A guy like Brandon Christensen though was never going to fit in. And not just because he was small. A transplant from Logan, Utah, Brandon had few, if any, friends. Who knows why some kids get ostracized? Multiple cowlicks battled for command of the straw mop of hair above his pink, murine face. And I remember he rarely made eye contact, but that hardly explains it.
In the restroom, when Brandon told Charlie he loved him, Charlie and his friends stepped back, shocked. A beat of silence. Then, before they could train their focus somewhere else—maybe on me, as their replacement sacrifice to the urine-filled porcelain bowl—I said it. “Brandon’s gay? He loves boys. Brandon’s a faggot!”
That’s all it took. From then on Brandon was the gay guy at school. And in Afton, Wyoming, in the 1980s, there was nothing worse you could be than gay.
The thing is, I know—I knew then —that Brandon just stammered “I love you” to stop the violence of the moment, that what he really meant was, Hey Charlie, I got nothing against you, why are you doing this? Gay and faggot were just words I’d picked up somewhere, from my older brother or from kids on the school bus. I didn’t fully grasp the concept of homosexuality. None of us did.
That didn’t stop anyone. Brandon was a “fag” and a “homo” and he “liked boys.” It was as if we all knew something was off about him and these new labels focused what was indescribable into a single detestable notion. And I didn’t just contribute that one initial observation. No, I fed the fire, reminding my classmates every few days what I’d witnessed in the boys room.
After a while the flames spread beyond my control. Soon there were claims. “Brandon keeps staring at my dick,” you’d hear in the hallway. Or, “Hey look, Brandon’s got a boner. He wants to fuck Mark in the ass.”
Don’t worry. I got mine. Verbal taunting. Bruises. It all eventually spilled my way. But first I would rob Brandon Christensen of what little hope he had of escaping the nightmare alive.
I hadn’t talked about those events for more than a decade, not until this past spring when, spurred by two high-profile teen suicides, I started to look into the bullying problem here in Washington state. In Cashmere, on the night of Sunday, January 29, 2012, Rafael Morelos, 14, told his mom he was going outside to play with the family dog. His brother found his body about an hour later, hanging from a bridge. In the days leading up to the suicide, Rafael, openly gay, had endured physical abuse in the gym locker room and harassment on Facebook, his friends told local newspapers.
On March 7, halfway across the state in Vancouver, Eden Wormer, also 14, told her family good night and, sometime before dawn, hanged herself. The eighth grader’s family told reporters that she too had been the victim of bullies. The trouble began in sixth grade, when a group of girls singled her out for not looking right, and intensified throughout middle school. In one of her last Facebook posts, Eden wrote: “I love all my friends n family n that includes all my haterz.”
When the State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction asked Washington students about bullying in 2010, 30 percent of sixth and eighth graders reported being victims, a rate that had steadily climbed since 2006. The students said that the abuse, both physical and verbal, significantly impacted their academic performance.
Few people know the toll like Diana Stadden. In 2006, her son David attended Hunt Middle School in Tacoma. Teachers would later tell her that it was the worst year of bullying they’d ever seen at the school. David, who is autistic, became an instant target. For sport, students fired spit wads at his face during class. In the hallway, one kid made a fist, took a swing, and stopped just short of David’s face. “He knew that that kind of move would get a great reaction out of David, which it did,” Stadden told me. David reacted by repeatedly banging his head on a doorjamb. Blood sprayed all over the hallway. “That’s when he started to get suicidal.”
Days later, in the middle of a conversation with a teacher, David stepped away. He ran outside the single-story, green-trim and brick school building, across the baseball field, past Jack in the Box, and right into four lanes of traffic on Sixth Ave. “He wanted to get hit by a car,” Stadden said. But he was unsuccessful.
In 2009, David Stadden’s mother, by then working at Arc of Washington State, an advocacy group for individuals with developmental disabilities, received a phone call from the office of state representative Marko Liias. He was sponsoring an antibullying measure and asked if Stadden would be willing to testify in front of a legislative committee.
Who knows why some kids get ostracized? Multiple cowlicks battled for command of the straw mop of hair above his pink, murine face. And I remember he rarely made eye contact, but that hardly explains it.
No one at the state capitol had talked seriously about bullying in seven years. A 2002 measure written to address the problem passed, but not before then governor Gary Locke vetoed a section that held school districts responsible. So armed with a Washington State University study that deemed the previous law useless, Liias, a freshman representing Mukilteo, introduced House Bill 2801 (a revamp of a bill that had passed a year earlier).
HB 2801 required accountability from schools. “Despite a recognized law prohibiting harassment, intimidation, and bullying of students in public schools,” Liias wrote, “and despite widespread adoption of antiharassment policies by school districts, harassment of students continues and has not declined since the law was enacted. Furthermore, students and parents continue to seek assistance against harassment, and schools need to disseminate more widely their antiharassment policies and procedures.”
Remember, in 2010 bullying, particularly antigay bullying, was at the center of the media universe. Several teen suicides dominated national headlines, and in Seattle, sex advice columnist Dan Savage was about to launch the It Gets Better Project, in which everyone from professional athletes to President Obama recorded video messages of encouragement to bullied gay and lesbian teens. When the bill went to a vote in the Senate and the House no one grumbled, and it passed unanimously.
Governor Christine Gregoire signed the measure into law on March 29. School administrators had until August 1, 2011, to put bullying policies in place, assign a district compliance officer, and consult a state-mandated checklist whenever bullying was reported at their schools. Legislators, educators, and parents thought the bullying situation would show improvement. They soon learned, as I had 25 years earlier, that bullies aren’t that easy to beat.
When we entered Star Valley Junior High in the fall of 1985 there was a chance to reset the social order. As graduates of Afton Elementary we joined students from two other elementary schools in the 60-mile-long valley that runs along the Idaho and Wyoming border. So two-thirds of the new seventh grade class knew nothing about Brandon Christensen or what he had said to Charlie Jensen.
I fixed that. In the first few weeks of school, I’d be sitting across a lunch table from a former student of Holdaway Elementary, for example, and announce, “Hey, that kid over there is gay.” “Where?” I’d point to Brandon, seated with a friend he’d just made.
“I swear. Go ask him and he won’t deny it. He’ll just tell you to shut up.”
“Yeah, right,” the doubter would say. Then, thinking he was calling my bluff, he’d walk over to Brandon. When he got back: “Holy shit, all he said was ‘shut up.’ He’s really a fag.”
Just as before, news of Brandon spread. Someone drew a large penis in permanent marker above his locker. Another student cut out a photo of a naked, muscular man from a porn mag—don’t ask me where he got it—and slipped it inside the locker.
I didn’t engage in those pranks. Aside from telling a few of our new classmates about Brandon, I stopped harassing him. By then I had my own problems.
Obsessed with comics (Batman, Superman, Green Lantern) and skateboarding, I hadn’t even tried to get better at team sports. Plus, I was still one of the smallest kids in my grade. That meant that every day in PE class, after Coach Hillstead picked team captains, who then picked players for basketball, football, or baseball, I was always one of the last to be chosen. During the course of the game no one on my team would let me handle the ball, making it impossible for me to improve at the sport. During baseball, members of the opposing team would yell to their batter, “Hit it to Gardner, he won’t catch it.”
Still, the other kids were relatively kind to me. Everyone except Lane Johnson. A skilled athlete, Lane constantly pointed out my failures on the field and court. “Gardner sucks.” “Gardner’s an idiot.” He was also in my band class—I played drums—where he regaled his fellow trombone players with the details of, say, the air ball I’d shot earlier that morning.
What was strange, and I thought this even at the time, was that Lane didn’t harass anyone else. He singled me out. I remember Sundays, watching TV alone in my parents’ bedroom, sick at the thought of going to school the next day. One night a cable channel played Duel, Steven Spielberg’s 1971 directorial debut. In the film a semitruck murderously stalks Dennis Weaver’s character. The audience never sees the truck driver and never learns why he wants to kill Weaver. More unsettling, the truck driver has no beef with anyone else on the road and at one point even helps a stalled school bus. It is Weaver alone the trucker wants to annihilate. Just as Lane wanted to destroy only me. My only escape was to not go to school at all. So come Monday morning I’d fake a stomachache; I missed more than 30 days of school during the seventh grade.
Things took a turn for the worse in band class the day Mr. Matthews grew impatient with my inability to read the notes and keep rhythm on a particular song. The other snare drummers could do it, why couldn’t I? The teacher grabbed my hand, which still clutched a drumstick, and ordered the rest of the class to start playing the song. Every time I was supposed to hit the drum, Mr. Matthews brought my hand down on it. He called on another student, someone from the trumpet section, maybe, handed him my drumsticks, and had him play my part. “Gardner, everyone can do this but you! What’s wrong with you?” Mr. Matthews yelled. “Are you a space cadet?” I shot a glance toward the trombone section. Lane looked back with a grin.
In one of her last Facebook posts, Eden wrote: “I love all my friends n family n that includes all my haterz.”
He and I both knew the bus ride after school would be hell for me, as he’d have a lot to share with our fellow passengers. So rather than catch the bus, I set out on foot through the fields, toward my house a mile and a half away. I wondered, as I climbed over barbed wire fence after barbed wire fence, speeding through cow pastures as quickly as I could, if this was the price for what I’d done to Brandon the year before. Maybe Lane was an avenging angel.
But in the eighth grade he lost interest, partly because our schedules never crossed. Tony Thompson took his place. Tony was a bully in the classic sense. Bigger than nearly everyone in the school and reeking of cigarette smoke, Tony tortured multiple victims. He idolized Hulk Hogan and other World Wrestling Federation stars. During lunch hour he practiced moves. Sleeper holds. Piledrivers. Clotheslines. If he’d seen it on WrestleMania, he tried it on us. My body was covered with bruises that I, ashamed, hid from my parents. After a while I stopped running from the guy. My confidence was shot, and the popularity I’d acquired during sixth grade was all but depleted.
In Mr. Allred’s social studies class Tony grabbed my yellow Mead notebook and turned to Eric Burton, my best friend, and, with the threat of an ass kicking after school, made him write: “I love James.” Below that he forced me to write: “I love Eric.” He said, “I’m going to check this everyday and if it’s scribbled out, I’m going to fuck you up.” Fearing my parents would see the notebook, I didn’t bring my social studies homework home for weeks. Maybe Tony was the avenging angel.
On Christmas morning, 1986, I splashed my sister’s new talking Alf doll with the disappearing ink I’d found in my stocking. When the ink left a watermark, my mom exploded, telling me I’d ruined Christmas for my sister and sent me to my room. I ran outside instead. Wearing just snow boots, jeans, and a long-sleeved shirt, I trudged through the snow in the 27-degree cold toward the bank of Swift Creek, the aptly named waterway that flowed past our backyard. Slabs of ice stood in all directions along the creek’s edge, like Superman’s Fortress of Solitude.
I stared into the half-frozen water. My chin shook uncontrollably. Tears slipped down my cheeks. The scolding from my mom had set me off, but what I was really upset about was that Christmas break would soon end. If I jumped into the creek I would likely drown or freeze to death, I thought, and I wouldn’t have to go back to school.
Now I consider myself lucky. For the kids Stephanie Thomas talks to, holiday breaks, weekends, or nights at home offer no escape from torment. “The harassment is 24-7,” said Thomas, a member of the Seattle Police Department’s eight-person cybercrime division. Over the past two years she has given more than 300 presentations at schools around the city, educating students on the perils of cyberbullying. “Multiple times, I’ve had girls come up to me afterwards, lift their wrists, and show me the cut marks where they’ve tried to kill themselves.”
Nearly all the bullying takes the form of sexually based name calling. “Slut, whore, bitch—it’s brutal,” Thomas told me. “At school things blow up because everyone’s gossiping about what happened online the night before. And at home it just starts up again because everybody’s on Facebook, everybody’s texting, everybody’s gaming, and they’re all chitchatting, they’re all spreading rumors, they’re all gossiping, and it’s just this endless cycle.”
The state antibullying law passed in 2010 does address fbullying that occurs via electronic means. And per superintendent of public instruction regulations, written in response to the new law, if a student harasses another student, even off school property, it’s the school’s problem.
The results, however, have been unimpressive. Adie Simmons, director of the Office of the Education Ombudsman, which answers directly to the governor’s office, is only supposed to hear from students and parents if the reporting process at the district level fails. Yet during the 2011–12 school year, Simmons’s office was asked to intervene in 143 cases of bullying from around the state. “The most common reasons for parents to contact our office regarding bullying,” Simmons told me, “were inadequate response by the school district, lack of a safety plan for the victim, lack of a prevention plan, and [schools] not following their own policy and procedures.”
Seattle Public Schools had the highest number of incidents—nine—referred to the ombudsman, with the Federal Way school district, at four, a close second. And at Evergreen Public Schools in Vancouver, well, that’s where Eden Wormer was reportedly harassed for two years by all her “haterz.”
I called that district’s designated antiharassment compliance officer to ask about the Wormer case. He passed me along to the district spokesperson, Carol Fenstermacher, who told me that, yes, there was an investigation after Wormer’s suicide, “but nothing could be substantiated” after the fact. “There’s all these laws,” Fenstermacher said, “but if students don’t talk to anyone about being bullied, then we can’t do anything about it.”
The compliance officer at Wenatchee School District, where Rafael Morelos was reportedly bullied before he hung himself on the bridge near his house, didn’t even return my call.
“Those incidents were not reported to my office,” said Simmons, the ombudsman. Setting the new law into effect, she explained, “has been a slow process.”
The man—white T-shirt, faded denim, cigarette—looked at me from halfway across the city park. In Jackson Hole, it’s actually more of a town square than a park. Tourists stalled at the corner entrance, hypnotized at the sight of an arch made of elk antlers, the bones of hundreds of ungulates dead for decades. A drum circle, its members dreadlocked and patchouli-soaked, filled another corner of the square. The boardwalk scrolled beneath me as I stepped toward the smoking man, Brandon Christensen.
It was summer of 1991, and I’d just finished high school. It’s cliche to say that punk rock saved my life, but that’s basically what happened. After eighth grade I doubled down on my obsession with skateboarding, learned tricks on the quarter pipe my dad had built for me at the end of our driveway, and pored over the pages of Thrasher magazine. My heroes, the guys catching air or grinding on curbs in Thrasher, listened to Black Flag and the Misfits.
In high school I made friends with Garren Stauffer, a fellow hardcore punk fan, and he introduced me to his older brother Geoffrey (also into punk) and, more importantly, to the Dead Kennedys. The singer, Jello Biafra, celebrated not fitting in. His songs mocked the jock-down social order that dominated high schools. But more than that, Biafra preached tolerance. I was awakened to how idiotic my treatment of Brandon had been. It was unconscionable that I’d ever singled out someone I perceived as gay—because now I didn’t see anything wrong with being gay. Garren and I liked girls and tried like hell to lose our virginity to them, but we didn’t care when the cowboys or jocks called us “faggots.” We laughed at it. And beyond the verbal barbs, which we accepted like trophies, no one messed with us. Tony Thompson had apologized to me for all his WWF antics. And Lane Johnson, still popular, still a star athlete, became, to us, little more than a caricature in a Dead Kennedys song.
I’d lost track of Brandon. High school yearbook photos reveal that he was enrolled for a while. There’s a photo of him from sophomore year, suited up for the marching band. And in a head shot from our junior year he’s sporting a mullet and an Anthrax T-shirt. Senior year, no trace. I think he dropped out.
So I was happy to spot him, now 18, leaning against a rail in a park 70 miles north of Afton, in Jackson Hole, where a lot of us worked during the summer. I was with Garren and I think I approached Brandon as a kind of celebration. He was alive and I was no longer an asshole! Maybe I would tell him I was sorry, I thought, as Garren and I inched closer.
Instead I asked if he had any drugs. We were looking for pot. Brandon stared at me. I doubt he and I had ever made eye contact before. His eyes blazed an intense blue. His face, almost catatonically relaxed. He seemed to hold no ill will toward me whatsoever. Without a single trace of annoyance or frustration he said, “I don’t do that shit.”
I wish I could tell you that’s how the story ends. I wish I could add that, years later, Brandon and I connected on Facebook. That photos of his kids now appear in my news feed. That I comment on pics of his family vacation to Yellowstone. Or that I “liked” the status he posted, live from the Anthrax reunion tour.
But a year later, in the fall of 1992, during a phone conversation, my sister said, casually, as an aside, “Heard about Brandon Christensen? Shot himself. It was in the paper.”
Christopher Borth wanted to kill himself, too. He never went as far as acquiring a gun or tying a noose, but after class each day at Mount Spokane High School, where he was a freshman, he’d sit at home alone and think of ways to get the job done. It was 2009, and Christopher was being called “faggot” every day. The bullies targeted him because of the way he dressed, he told me. Skinny jeans, long hair, spiked belts, maybe a Rancid T-shirt—a neopunk in not-so-punk-loving Spokane, Washington.
The abuse escalated. His tormentors shoved him in the hallway and when he was half naked in the gym locker room. Had nothing changed soon, Borth believes, he would have ended his life.
The solution didn’t come in the form of a new state-mandated policy. No compliance officer pled Borth’s case. Instead, Borth’s father, aware that his son was struggling, pulled him out of public school and enrolled him in Insight School of Washington, an online program that allows students to do their course work from the comfort of a laptop at home.
Borth says with Insight he could finally concentrate. “My grades went through the roof.” He used to pull Cs and Ds. Now he belongs to the National Honor Society. He graduated in June and didn’t experience a minute of bullying in the three years he was enrolled in the school.
After I talked to Borth, I went online, not to look up Insight—yes, it sounds fantastic—but to see what I could learn about what happened to Brandon after I saw him in the park in Jackson. All I found was a scan of his newspaper obituary. I saw that he’d married and had a daughter—two events that must have happened shortly after he left school—and that before he died he was a custodian and student at a tiny community college. The description of his demise surprised me: “Died of an accidental gunshot wound.” I’d always thought his cause of death was unambiguous. It was assumed among my friends in Afton that he committed suicide, though honestly the wording in the obit hardly rules it out. In the religious culture that Brandon and I grew up in, being suicidal was almost as bad as being gay.
Of everyone I talked to about bullying, Christopher Borth gave me the most hope. But it’s disheartening to learn that one of the most successful ways to deal with bullies in school is to simply leave the school. That’s not an option for everyone. Not now. Not 25 years ago. There was nothing like Insight for Brandon and me.
Maybe the new law in Washington is a step in the right direction, since, in theory, bullying won’t go unreported. But noncompliance rates are high and kids are hanging themselves. And I’m not sure paperwork does much to solve it, anyway. The teachers in my world back in Wyoming seemed oblivious to the savagery unfolding right in front of them—kids belittled and physically tortured just feet away.
For years I blamed myself for Brandon’s death. To an extent, I still do. But now I recognize that in that situation, in all these situations, the adults should have stepped in.
If parents, teachers, administrators—all leaders, in fact—stare the problem in its mean, pimply face, there’s hope. Dan Savage’s It Gets Better comes closest. But more than it gets better, it’s not okay. What if every adult drilled that idea into every child in his or her life? It’s not okay. It’s not okay to single people out because they’re different. It’s not okay to do nothing while kids who haven’t even hit puberty are mocked for their sexuality, or perceived sexuality. It’s not okay to let the assholes win.
While working on this story in late May, during one of those Seattle afternoons so sunny it’s criminal to sit at a desk, I left the office early. I opened all the windows in my house, and then opened my storage closet. I dug through boxes of school notebooks and photos and letters from ex-girlfriends—stuff I hadn’t eyed in at least a decade. As I excavated through the years, I came across a box containing a thin, 24-page booklet: my seventh grade yearbook from Star Valley Junior High. It’s saddle stitched and all the photos are black and white. I turned immediately to the photo of Brandon. He’s smiling at the camera, a puckish, mischievous smile. He looks happy. I look happy in my head shot, too. So does Lane Johnson. And Tony Thompson. We’re all smiling, as if nothing could possibly be wrong.
I flipped to the back inside cover, where on the last day of the school year my classmates had left signatures. People mostly just signed their names. A few scribbled, “Stay cool James.” One person wrote more. I had to read it a couple times to believe it.
“Have a good summer. Brandon Christensen.”
*Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.