Threatening letters persuade gay teacher to leave Kansas school

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Following months of harassment, Michael Hill abandoned his job and home state for Palm Springs, Calif.

By Sherman SmithGatehouse Media Kansas

TOPEKA, Kan. — The threats began shortly after Michael Hill revealed he is gay in October on National Coming Out Day.

Following months of harassment, the Nemaha Valley High School visual arts teacher and lifelong Kansan has abandoned his job and home state for the more welcoming environment of Palm Springs, Calif.

“Things got ugly,” Hill said, “and I started to fear for my own well-being.”

A series of hate-filled letters told Hill his openly gay lifestyle wouldn’t be tolerated by the Seneca community. If he didn’t leave, one letter promised, the anonymous author would “take matters into my own hands.” His car tire was punctured with a screwdriver. He found “f—-t” written in the dust on his car.

Hill said he reported the incidents to police, who couldn’t identify the culprit. He was too afraid to leave his apartment at night and suffered from severe mental stress.

The school district initially was supportive, he said, allowing him to take medical leave in mid-January. But after seven weeks of unpaid leave, Hill was told it was time to resign or return to class.

“It was very frustrating,” he said, “that my option was to pack up and move.”

Hill said he grew up in Sabetha and taught at Highland Community College for six years before taking the job at Nemaha Valley in 2009. He first told his family he was gay in July of last year.

On Oct. 14, Hill made a public statement revealing he was gay. Shortly after, someone took a photo of him dining with a male friend. The photo quickly circulated on Snapchat, he said, as he became the target of cyberbullying.

The harassment led to a disruptive classroom environment, he said, and eroded respect for him as a professional.

Nemaha Central Unified School District 115 superintendent Darrel Kohlman said he couldn’t comment on personnel matters and that the incidents targeting Hill happened away from school. The district doesn’t tolerate harassment, discrimination or bullying, he said, and his schools teach students that such behavior is inappropriate.

“We feel like we’re trying to do our part,” Kohlman said. “It’s unfortunate that society has not followed suit.”

Letters to Hill repeatedly said he should be fired for adopting an immoral lifestyle. “F–s” are not welcome, one letter said, and he should watch his back.

“Homosexuals should not be teaching our kids,” another letter said. “In fact, I don’t believe they should be teachers at all. They are perverts and predators. They are not acceptable role models for our kids.”

Kohlman said a longtime district substitute has filled in for Hill this semester and worked with Hill while he was on leave. A replacement for the upcoming school year has accepted an offer from the district, but the offer hasn’t yet been submitted to the school board for approval.

Tom Witt, executive director for Equality Kansas, said it was “absolutely horrifying that professionals in Kansas are still being harassed and threatened, and run out of their jobs and run out of town, because of their sexual orientation.”

Hill announced his resignation in a Facebook post with images of the three letters he received, saying “people need to know this kind of ugly hatred still exists in the world.” More than a thousand people reacted to the post, and about 400 comments offer love and well wishes.

In an interview, Hill said he has found Palm Springs to be an accepting and open community.

“It’s a good place for me to be right now,” he said, “at this point in my life.”

Sherman Smith is a reporter for The Topeka (Kan.) Capital-Journal.

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