Editor's note: Late Tuesday afternoon, Hercules police said that the student who claimed he was attacked in a bathroom at Hercules High School had recanted his report and admitted that the incident was a fabrication. For an updated report, go to bit.ly/Ntxa9d

HERCULES -- Parents, students and teachers were reeling Tuesday in the wake of a violent attack on a transgender student at Hercules Middle/High School.

The attack was the second altercation involving a transgender student on the campus this school year and came only days after an overwhelming teachers' vote of no-confidence in the school's principal, partially spurred by complaints of a lack of safety on campus that had led to fights and arrests.

Hercules High, 2004.  (Contra Costa Times/ Gregory Urquiaga)
Hercules High, 2004. (Contra Costa Times/ Gregory Urquiaga)

In the latest incident, a 15-year-old transgender male student told police he was leaving the bathroom in the 300 building at around 11 a.m. when three boys pushed him inside a bathroom stall and physically and sexually assaulted him.

Hercules police Officer and spokeswoman Connie Van Putten said investigators are treating the incident as a hate crime.

"We know from the investigation that certain disparaging remarks were made to the victim while this was happening that would classify this as a hate crime," Van Putten said.

The student was exercising his right under a new state law to use a bathroom that matched his gender identity.


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"This is a terrible tragedy that occurred to this student," said Brad Dacus, president of the Pacific Justice Institute, which opposed the law. "For him to be put in such an unsafe environment should be a wake-up call to every school district about what can happen if (this law) is implemented. ... The people who did this, and the school district should be held responsible in doing all they can not to ignore it."

Detectives were on campus Tuesday to look for any physical evidence left in the bathroom where the sexual assault occurred, Van Putten said. As of Tuesday morning, no witnesses had come forward and so far no suspects have been identified or arrested, Van Putten added. The suspects were described only as being 16 to 17 years old.

Van Putten said there are no surveillance cameras on the 14-year-old campus, and that two full-time police officers serve as campus security. She also said the victim did not know or recognize the three suspects, and that investigators have not ruled out the possibility the suspects are not Hercules students. Students there are required to wear ID lanyards, and police said it is not yet known whether the attackers were wearing them.

"We are concerned about the safety of the students in that school," Van Putten said. "We're doing everything we can as a department to come up with a remedy."

The victim's family has reached out to the Transgender Law Center seeking legal options, according to a joint statement from the Gay-Straight Alliance Network, the RYSE Center, Transgender Law Center, and the Rainbow Community Center of Contra Costa County.

"(He) is very resilient, taking it day by day," RYSE Center Executive Director Kimberly Aceves said of the victim. "The family is appreciative of the community response because they are obviously very upset about what has happened to the child. I can't even imagine what they are going through now."

School Principal Jen Bender refused to speak to a reporter at the school Tuesday morning and said she would distribute a statement later in the day. District representatives were at the school early Tuesday to meet with teachers and brief them on the incident and discuss way to talk to students about what happened and support them, said district spokesman Marin Trujillo.

In November, transgender student Jewlyes Gutierrez was arrested and charged with battery for a fight she said happened because Hercules school officials would not help her after she complained about being a victim of bullying. A judge later ordered Gutierrez to participate in a conflict resolution program known as restorative justice; the charge will likely be dismissed if she completes the program. Aceves said since then, the school district has ignored pleas by RYSE and other organizations to work with the district on LBGT issues.

"Transgendered people live in a society that is dangerous for them, and they are exposed to violence on a daily basis," said Vinnie Pompei, the Director of the Youth Well-Being Project for the Human Rights Campaign Foundation and the president for the California Association of School Counselors. "You would imagine that a student facing such concerns would be made to feel safe on a campus, that it might be a refuge for all of that. The fact that it is not says it all."

The school has a history of other problems relating to violence and a general lack of civil behavior.

In a Feb. 2 message to the school by Bender and posted on the school's website, she decried the pattern of behavior on campus and outlined several steps the school was taking to make sure students and staff are safe, including bringing a second security guard to the campus. This is what Bender wrote:

"Over the last month we have had a number of verbal altercations between students on campus which involved threats to hurt others. These verbal altercations were the result of both on campus and off campus communication both in person and online between parties. The security staff is able to follow up quickly and prevent many physical altercations, but it is clear that these disturbances are effecting our academic environment and our community. I am disheartened when I go on to Twitter and Instagram or any of the other online venues to see what students post about each other; their sheer lack of kindness and tone of judgment is remarkable. This is not the Titan community we want.

"I believe that all students need to feel safe at school. These actions, threats, bullying, extreme judgments, and tendency to want to "solve" issues through threats of physical violence are unacceptable. We are aware of that as a school and we are responding. We have a long-term plan to create a culture for everyone at HMHS that is safe, welcoming, and responds to and addresses conflict through mediation not insults, yelling, or fists."

Such an atmosphere jibes with those described by gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students who have used the San Francisco-based Gay-Straight Alliance Network, Executive Director Carolyn Laub said. The network has a chapter at the school.

"School should be a place where all young people can grow and get an education in a safe environment," Laub said."The fact that the culture at the school is not that way is inexcusable."

In December, the West Contra Costa school board held a special meeting to address bullying and harassment after a federal Office of Civil Rights report uncovered the district had failed to address the issues.

West Contra Costa Unified School District board President Charles Ramsey said Monday that the kind of violence alleged in the attack will not be tolerated, and he hopes the subject will be addressed at next week's board meeting.

"It's a tragedy," Ramsey said. "We ... extend our sympathies and apologies to the victim. You hope that he is feeling better."

"Obviously things are running amok at Hercules," Ramsey added. "We have to do better. This is all escalating and starting to accumulate. Really, it's an unsafe environment at the school and a lot of people are concerned. "

Tiffany Woods, a Pinole native and transgender programs manager at Tri-City Health Center in Fremont, said Contra Costa has long struggled to address issues pertaining to transgender youth.

"I know Contra Costa from the fact that I went to high school there. Contra Costa is just a much more conservative district," Woods said. "I can't imagine this kid has a whole lot of support out there. Where are they going to get it from?"

Said Aceves: "There are some amazing advocates that could really work together on this. I really think it's the only way we're going to solve this."

Anyone with information on the case is asked to call Hercules police at 510-724-1111.