The death of a Cheatham County teen has raised questions about anti-gay harassment in Tennessee high schools.

Jacob Rogers, 18, committed suicide Tuesday night after classmates had bullied him about his sexuality. Friends say that as a result he had recently dropped out of school last month.

Before his death, Rogers wrote a series of status updates on Facebook that indicated his intent to kill himself. "Taking everything in, I LOVE YOU ALL and I'm very sorry. This is me, signing off," he said in one post. In another, "Tonight's the night, I have that gut feeling. :/ Not dead yet, but I'm stuck in limbo. :/."

According to a former Cheatham County High School teacher who contacted O&AN, a combination of factors led to Rogers' death:

"The administration did nothing to try and stop this from happening. There's never been any disciplinary action taken unless there was a fight. I wish I could have reached out to him more, but he had such a mistrust of authority figures because nobody tried to help. His family is poor, and he lived with his grandmother because his father didn't approve of his lifestyle. He was so delicate and fragile and he didn't get support. It's important to keep gay teens from falling into a depression in these repressive communities."

Cheatham County Schools Director Dr. Tim Webb said the school was only aware of one bullying incident involving Rogers. After being made aware of the incident, the school spoke with the accused bullies.

As school officials address Rogers' death, the focus should be on the student population, says Jonathan Cole, president of Tennessee Equality Project (TEP).

"I worry about the kids at the school and if there are counseling services to give kids a chance to talk about this," he says. "We don't want to sensationalize an event and have kids see this as a way out. We want to focus on how we can prevent these types of things from happening."

Schools districts must adopt policies which prohibit bullying in order to prevent future suicides, says Chris Sanders, chair of TEP's Nashville committee.

"If there are specific types of bullying such as anti-gay bullying," he says. "they need to be addressed with specific policy changes that specifically include sexual orientation and gender identity."

Although many schools nationwide offer programs that combat anti-gay bullying, recent legislation in Tennessee has been as a threat to safe schools for all students. The recent spate of teen suicides can largely be blamed on a lack of legal protections for GLBT youth, according to Brad Palmertree, co-chair of the Middle Tennessee chapter of Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN).

“Stories such as this have brought bullying into the national discourse,” he says. “Recently we’ve seen some positive steps taken by some states to combat the isolation and rejection experienced by some youth who identify as GLBT. Unfortunately, here in Tennessee, we have legislators who wish to silence these students by passing the so-called 'Don’t Say Gay' bill that makes it even harder for a struggling student to seek the help they so desperately need."

"This is exactly why we need stronger, more welcoming schools and inclusive policies that help - not hurt - students who identify as GLBT," Palmertree adds.

In a written statement offered by the national GLSEN office, the organization said that this tragic death will hopefully serve as a catalyst for community dialogue.

"The horrible instances of school bullying that led to Jacob Rogers taking his own life reflect the growing need for a change in our culture to value the differences of our youth," the statement reads.

TEP has circulated a petition calling upon the Cheatham County School Board to fully investigate the incident and form a policy that prohibits student discrimination on any basis.

"It's important to talk as a community about what happened and how we can help," Sanders says. "We need to make sure that those with authority in Cheatham County know that they must address the bullying in their schools."

A memorial service and candlelight vigil will be held at OutCentral Wednesday night in Rogers' honor. Donations for a funeral are being accepted at Sandman's Ink Shop in Ashland City (1102 N. Main Street; Ashland City, TN 37015).

 

This article has been republished from Out & About Nashville, and was part of a series of first-person pieces written by the late Bobbi Williams.

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