Lying Homophobic High School Principal Who Bullied Student Elicits National Outrage

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When Tyler Johnson was called into Tully High School’s principal Mike O’Brien’s office Thursday January 6th he was caught off guard.

Johnson had recently been selected for the upstate New York school’s publication Knight Insight’s Senior Spotlight and O’Brien proceeded to tell him that he had to re- write his story: specifically the part about the challenges he’s faced, the part where he’s gay.

When Johnson asked why, O’Brien responded that it was nothing personal and due to policies in place that were out of his hands. Johnson replied that he would rather they not run the story at all than change it.

The policy O’Brien said, prohibits any references to “sexuality, orientation, religion, or illegal drugs” in the Senior Spotlight. “You’re such a unique student, such a positive face in our community. We want you in the Spotlight, but you can’t say you’re gay or that overcoming bullying is your accomplishment.”

When Johnson’s mother, Pamela Custer, called O’Brien for an explanation the principal refused to back down repeating that he could not go against formal district policy.

This was a lie.

Earlier that morning O’Brien had called district superintendent Robert J. Hughes to ask him how he could get away with removing Johnson’s answers about being gay and battling depression stemming from year’s of being bullied. Hughes suggested they invent one.

Johnson posted a TikTok following his meeting explaining what had happened and the answers he’d given. “So, my school is homophobic ” Johnson says in the video, “I answered truthfully with the biggest challenge I’d had to overcome: The biggest challenge I faced was growing up gay and coming out. I had to learn how to become comfortable in my own skin and how to stay strong through bullying and all the negative experiences I had while trying to navigate through life.”

@_tylerrayjohnson_ so my school is homophobic 😛 #gay #gayteen #highschool #foryoupage #fypシ #discriminacion ♬ original sound – Tyler

The response from the Tully community was immediate, overwhelming, and supportive including a text from the Board of Education president saying she believed what was happening to him was wrong.

It was no only wrong but illegal and a clear violation of both New York State Education law as well federal Title IX civil rights law.

O’Brien quickly responded to Johnson Friday saying he was sorry he didn’t feel welcome at the school, that he supported LGBTQ students, and had even approved of the GSA (Gender and Sexual Alliance) club that Johnson and other students are putting together. He said he had pursued a change to district policy and that Johnson’s full answers would be published in a future Senior Spotlight.

According to the latest 2021 survey from The Trevor Project, a national non-profit whose mission as a support resource for gay and lesbian youth has been invaluable over the years, 42% of LGBT youth aged 12-17 seriously considered suicide. LGBT youth commit suicide at more than twice the national average than their heterosexual counterparts with 52% experiencing severe bullying.

It’s in this context that we must be outraged at O’Brien’s cavalier scofflaw attitude towards a student in his care.

For Johnson, the encounter resulted in severe anxiety. What reason, except blatant homophobia accounted for O’Brien’s hostility towards his story?

Searching for another reasonable explanation I found none as O’Brien failed to respond to phone calls for an opportunity to explain what’s going on in Tully. I turned to members of the Tully community. The extraordinarily supportive reaction of its citizens was a refreshing contrast to the school administration and the majority were as vexed at O’Brien’s outright violation of Johnson’s rights as I was.

Tully resident Joshua Gallagher told me although he’s seen no evidence of an out right anti-gay agenda on O’Brien’s part but noted he’s not surprised at his thuggish bullying behavior towards Johnson as O’Brien is of “low to average intelligence. He has very poor writing samples.”

Gallagher’s assessment is based on O’Brien’s master degree thesis from Syracuse University. “He writes like an 8th grader. It reads like a girl going through puberty.”

For about a decade Gallagher has been working with writers who also have to perform SEO functions. “I find an easy and obvious connection between writing style and further usefulness and growth in the other skills.”

Gallagher said that as of Monday evening he’d received no response from queries to the principal, superintendent, or school board members.

Tully’s residents were out in full support Monday night at the school where the board had convened for an emergency meeting to formulate a response to their demand for an explanation for O’Brien’s actions other than personally held homophobia.

In a letter to the district Monday afternoon Hughes explained the emergency meeting was a response to  O’Brien’s blatant homophobia towards Johnson, “Clearly, as a school district, we have to do a better job of supporting our LGBTQIA+ students. I have room to grow in this area as well. I am committed to growing in this area and taking the necessary steps to forge substantial, enduring changes. I am looking forward to having the District’s and the community’s support in accomplishing this goal.”

Hughes promised a follow up letter that would outline a formal and actionable accounting of O’Brien’s actions today and expressed happiness at the community’s outpouring of support. “I’m glad they’re supporting Tyler. I really am. He needs their support.”

An exhausted Johnson told #GayNrd late Monday night that he was hopeful after speaking to two local news outlets who ran segments that night but that neither Hughes or O’Brien had reached out to apologize directly and expressed that the entire hubbub made focusing on his school work difficult.

Johnson is feeling the frustration many of us feel these days where we are often told how we good we have it, as if oppression and anti-gay discrimination is a thing of the past. The experience has inspired Johnson to become more active as his high school career ends and next year as an undergrad at Oswego State College where he’s been accepted into their joint five-year BA/MBA program. “You think we’re, you know, making progress and then something like that happens and you realize we’re not as far as we think we are.”