JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Every day, they cut him with slurs. Almost every day, they tried to block him from the boys’ locker room. For Elijah Robinson, a soft-spoken kid with mocha skin and almond eyes, the harassment at his high school was cruel punishment for his sexual identity.
It started in ninth grade and continued through most of 10th. It eventually turned physical, with boys pushing and kicking him, hoping to provoke a fight.
At some point, Elijah said, the bullying made him too “scatterbrained” to focus on academics. His A’s and B’s fell to F’s. But bad grades were the least of it.
The bullying led to depression. Depression spiraled into a suicide attempt.
Once Elijah got out of the hospital, his mom decided to take him out of the assigned public school that had become his nightmare and send him to a place called The Foundation Academy. A friend assured Elijah’s mom that the eclectic little private school was warm and welcoming – to all students.
To pay tuition, the single mother and nail salon worker secured a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income students. Funded by corporate contributions, the scholarship is used by 100,000 students statewide, two thirds of them black and Hispanic and typically the ones who struggled the most in their prior public schools.
Without it, Elijah’s mom said, she wouldn’t have been able to afford the school.
Without it, Elijah said, he wouldn’t be alive.
“If I had stayed at my previous school,” he said, “I honestly think I would have lost my life.”
Elijah is 18 now, and a senior. The bullying is behind him. His academics are back on track.
The students and teachers at The Foundation Academy “didn’t see me as a label. They saw me for me,” he said. “I definitely am in a better place.”
Elijah’s story would be compelling any time, but it’s especially poignant now as there has been increased criticism of the scholarship program and religious schools with policies adhering to their faith.
According to the most recent survey from GLSEN, 72 percent of LGBTQ students in public district schools said they experienced bullying, harassment and assault due to their sexual orientation, compared to 68 percent of LGBTQ students in private, religious schools. For bullying, harassment and assault based on gender expression, the corresponding rates were 61 percent and 56 percent.
Those numbers speak to an urgent need for more awareness and action across all types of schools. But in the meantime, this fact cannot be ignored: The growing availability of choice scholarships has given more students like Elijah the ability to find a safe haven.
Elijah is tall and thin, with a shock of hair that makes his mixed-race features even more striking. He likes to jog. He likes to read. He likes “Call of Duty,” and salmon sashimi, and fishing with his uncle. He exudes a quiet confidence that sometimes comes to those who have endured so much, so young.
Elijah thinks he was harassed in his prior school because he liked to wear girl’s jeans and sweaters and was not “acting like the stereotypical guy.” He said he didn’t fight back. Instead, he did what bullied kids are advised to do: tell the adults in charge. The teachers and administrators said they told his tormentors to stop, but they didn’t stop. Elijah said when he continued to complain, the teachers and administrators told him to “just ignore it.”
The Foundation Academy is 15 minutes from Elijah’s old school, but in terms of school culture it’s on another planet. It serves 375 students in K-12, with 86 percent using choice scholarships. Thanks to those scholarships, the school is remarkably diverse, and has served at least two dozen openly LGBTQ students.
In a 2018 story about another LGBTQ student who found refuge at the school, founder and principal Nadia Hionides noted she has a son, a brother and a niece who are LGBTQ. “We love Jesus, and Jesus loves everybody,” Hionides said. “We must affirm and accept everybody.”
Elijah isn’t sure exactly what he’s doing after graduation, but he’s planning on college and wants to be a nurse like his aunt. He likes the thought of helping people in pain. He already knows a lot about hurt and healing.