A Mother's Fight to Keep Her Son Safe in School
"My greatest hope for Robby is that he will just grow up accepting and loving himself," said his mother, Tracy Martinazzi, who took on a school district -- and a way of thinking -- that allowed her son to be the victim of name-calling, taunts, and, finally, brutal physical abuse based on his sexual orientation.
"And I really want my son to grow up without a victim mentality. I want him to be able to say I am not a victim. Hopefully, this will be a positive move in that direction."
The "move" Martinazzi is referring to is a settlement the family negotiated through the ACLU of Northern California with her son's Northern California school district that contains a comprehensive series of steps the district has taken to protect students from anti-gay harassment and discrimination.
Taunting Since the Third Grade
Throughout her son's elementary and middle school years, Martinazzi tried to get school officials at the Upper Lake Union Elementary School District to take notice and protect Robby.
Some teachers and administrators seemed sympathetic, but nobody took adequate action, despite that fact that state and federal laws require school officials to intervene when they are made aware of LGBT harassment and discrimination.
One principal told Martinazzi that Robby was "flitting around" and "drawing attention to himself."
Martinazzi remembers responding, "He could wear a dress and lipstick to school and it doesn't give people the right to hurt him."
Harassment Leads to Falling Grades
The harassment seemed never-ending. "I can't remember a day at school when I wasn't called a faggot or gay," Robby said.
As a result of the traumatizing environment, Robby, who had always loved school, saw his grades start to plummet. By the eighth grade, he was failing all his classes.
A Vicious Attack
In the fall of 2007, a group of boys attacked Robby in his school locker room after gym class, knocking him to the ground and kicking him in the stomach, head, and sides while screaming "fag" and "queer" at him.
"I gave the principal three days to do something after the attack," Martinazzi said. The boys who left Robby battered and bruised were given a three-day suspension, something Martinazzi and her family thought was completely inappropriate given the gravity of the incident.
"I thought, is my boy going to have to be killed before things change?" Martinazzi said. "And we really thought that the next thing that was going to happen was that we were going to get a phone call saying that Robby had been killed."
That's when the family called the ACLU of Northern California. As part of the settlement, the district adopted clearanti-harassment and discrimination policies, will educate students about the harmful effects of discrimination, and will train teachers in effective intervention strategies.
Steps Toward Empowerment
Robby also started a Gay/Straight Alliance Club at his middle school, which the district is required to maintain under the settlement. Martinazzi believes starting the club helped empower her son.
Despite some negative remarks and hateful comments posted on blogs, Martinazzi has no regrets about taking a stand rather than moving her son to a different school district.
"My son has the right to be who he is no matter where he lives or goes to school," she said. "I hope that people will learn to accept the differences in others and see diversity as something to enrich our lives."
The Right to Education Without Fear
Martinazzi said there have been community members who have thanked her for her bravery.
"I think a lot of people realized that hate was going on in our community, when they didn't realize it before," she said. "It was kind of like, damn, it does happen here, and we do need to do more teaching, and we do need to reach out more."
"If there's one thing I've learned through this experience, it's that everyone has the right to get an education without the fear of harassment or attack," he said. "I hope that because of the policy changes we fought for, other kids won't have to go through what I went through."
Robby added that he's proud that he "had the chance to help make my school a safer place for LGBT kids."
Martinazzi said Robby's struggles are not over; the emotional scars will take time to heal. But she is optimistic.
"I think that right now, Robby is finding his inner strength and coming to understand that the way other people perceive him doesn't have to define who he is."