Can Teachers Remain Neutral Over LGBT Bullying?

As promised, here is my second blog regarding the lawsuits filed against Minnesota’s Anoka-Hennepin School District due to their “pervasive anti-gay harassment,” according to the two advocacy groups who filed the suit, and the debate surrounding this district’s neutrality policy when it comes to LGBT students. (I would suggest that you read yesterday’s blog in order to better understand the major issues in this case.)

The Anoka-Hennepin School District has seen seven teen suicides in less than two years, which has some in the community questioning the district’s neutrality policy which basically says that teachers are not to express opinions regarding their students’ sexual orientation, but instead are to remain neutral on this subject. According to this policy, any discussions of this nature are to be left to parents to deal with at home.

So the debate rages over the ability of teachers to effectively deal with bullying of gay or lesbian students, or those who are perceived to be gay or lesbians if they have been basically “muzzled” by this policy. Adding to the debate, is the Safe Schools Improvement Act, which is legislation making its way through Congress. Its goal is to deal with the bullying of LGBT or perceived gay or lesbian students. It states the following reasons for needing to pass this act:

“Bullying and harassment of students who are, or are perceived to be, lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) is widespread.  While current federal law provides important support to promote school safety, it does not comprehensively and expressly focus on issues of bullying or harassment, and in no way addresses the unique challenges faced by LGBT youth.  Studies have shown that bullying and harassment of LGBT youth in schools contributes to high rates of absenteeism, dropout, adverse health consequences and academic underachievement.  When left unchecked, such bullying and harassment can lead to, and has led to, dangerous situations for young people.”

This act, which would require the instituting of stricter codes of conduct regarding this kind of harassment, has both sides of this issue pretty stirred up.

Anderson Cooper of CNN interviewed Candi Cushman, who represents the conservative group Focus on the Family. This conservative Christian group feels that gay activists are using this bullying issue to push their own agenda in the schools.

Cooper asked her how she would suggest stopping the bullying of gays, lesbians, or kids who are perceived to be one of these if you can’t mention the words gay or lesbian. Her answer was that you should address the issue of the bullying itself rather than the reason for the bullying. When Cooper tried to pin Cushman down as to whether she would be okay with teachers identifying other forms of bullying, such as bullying of students because of their race for example, Cushman again glossed over the point he was trying to make by again focusing on gay rights activists using this legislation to promote their lifestyle and the need to only address the bully’s behavior rather than his reason for the behavior.

Dr. Eliza Byard, the executive director for GLSEN, the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network, which supports the Safe School Improvement Act, rebutted a neutral approach to dealing with bullying of gay and lesbian students saying, “The fact is, and the data bears out, if you don’t mention the specific problem, teachers don’t act and students don’t have a better experience. Our bill would cover all students, but indicates specifically that you must also include attention to these characteristics. And when you do, our data shows rates of harassment and victimization of LGBT, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students goes down. If you don’t mention that, there’s no effect.”

Rosalind Wiseman, writer of Queen Bees and Wannabes, told Cooper, “This is not just about the gay kids in school; this is about everybody because bullying does not exist without homophobia.”

She explained that kids are trying to prove that they belong, and if they speak out against something they feel is wrong, it is not uncommon for other students to call them gay, which paralyzes them from speaking out against future cruelty.  “And so it’s not just about the gay kids being safe, which I believe a hundred percent they have the right to be. It’s also about everybody in the school feeling that they have the right to speak out,” Rosalind continued.

Wiseman said, “So we can have policies that are about ideal reality or we can have policies that are about concrete reality and reflect what children are experiencing. And that’s when we become relevant to young people.”

“If you take out that language of naming the behavior, it becomes so amorphous that there is nothing to talk about, there’s no place to talk, there’s no place for that kid to define what is happening to him, and they also feel like they’re so ashamed that this is, you know, they can’t talk about it, these words are not allowed to be talked about. And so then they lose the whole process and the whole ability to have the conversation. They become silent.”

Liza summarized by saying, “The Safe Schools Improvement Act is about behavior not beliefs…Bullying is a dynamic in a classroom. Bullies need our help, victims need our help, and bystanders need our help. They need adults to act to take care of the culture of that classroom and build a culture of respect.”

Okay, here comes my opinion. First, as a fifth-grade teacher, I hear the words gay and fag bandied about all of the time. To pretend our kids aren’t saying these words and calling each other these names is utterly ridiculous. And I have had many students over the years, who already at fifth-grade are clearly questioning their sexuality or being bullied for perceived gay or lesbian tendencies. Again, to believe otherwise, as Rosalind said, is not the reality we see in schools today.

Our kids grow up being afraid of saying or doing something that will label them different in any way, just as much as they worry about looking different because they know that opens the door for bullying and teasing. Homophobia is alive in our schools and our neighborhoods. If we can’t use the words to describe the behavior, we send a clear message that, while the bullying is bad, so is the behavior that brought on the bullying.

We need to face reality and stop being so afraid of it. We have always had LGBT kids in our schools. We can’t ignore them away or bully them away, and we shouldn’t. They are as beautiful as any other student in our classrooms and deserving of our respect and protection.

It is my job, just as it is every teacher’s job, to treat these children as I would any other and to name behavior that does not treat students with respect for what it is, refusing to allow it in my classroom. I don’t care if you’re overweight, very tall, very short, wear glasses, have a big nose, big feet, gay, lesbian, or whatever. No one deserves to be bullied, and it is my job, because I am a teacher, to do everything I can to create a safe, healthy environment for every student in my classroom.

I refuse to be neutral about that. And I bet a lot of  Anoka-Hennepin teachers feel the same way.

3 thoughts on “Can Teachers Remain Neutral Over LGBT Bullying?

  1. L Marshall

    First, there is an increasingly shrill claim that bullying is primarily directed at gay kids–that bullying “can’t exist without homophobia.” Let me assure you that when I was in school in the 1960s, bullying very definitely existed, though we had never even heard the word homophobia.

    Second, it seems to me that the neutrality requirement protects teachers from having to say that they approve of homosexuality if they don’t. We seem to increasingly live in a world where expressing unpopular opinions will get you fired. Surely it’s possible to say that bullying is wrong without saying the homosexuality is right.

  2. admin Post author

    I appreciate your comment, L., but I’m not sure that I agree with your basic premise. I have never read a statement, in any of the countless articles I have read regarding bullying, “that bullying can’t exist without homophobia.” Some bullying has absolutely nothing to do with the sexuality of the person being bullied. So there is no way that bullying of this nature has any link to homophobia whatsoever. There are myriad reasons why people bully, sexual orientation is just one.

    I do agree, however, that bullying due to sexual orientation or perceived sexual orientation is huge; probably the most prevalent type of bullying that teachers see in schools. And I do feel that much of this bullying stems from a discomfort of gay and lesbian life styles. And that smacks of homophobia to me.

    Your second point is well taken. Obviously, we cannot expect that all teachers are going to approve of homosexuality and there are going to be plenty of teachers who are uncomfortable with the whole thing.

    But, here is the problem, as far as I see it anyway. When a student bullies another student in my classroom, I address what the bully was harrassing them about. If it’s because the bullied student is struggling academically, for instance, I will address the fact that everyone learns differently and at a different speed, and that is okay, and it is wrong to make fun of them for how they learn.

    If a student is bullying another student because they wear old, beat up clothes, I will talk about the fact that clothes don’t make a person who they are; it is what’s inside that is the true measure of a person, and we should never make fun of someone for what they wear, as they may have no control over that.

    Now, if I can’t talk about sexual orientation, and a student is calling another student gay or a faggot, if I can’t address specifically what is wrong with that kind of teasing, yet I can specifically address every other form of bullying in my classroom, I send the message that I am equally uncomfortable with that behavior. This sets up confusion for my students, because they know I will talk about everything else, but not this. Hence, in their minds, it is likely that they will leap to the conclusion that I find it disgusting, too. If that is the case, how likely is it that the bullying will stop, in this instance?

    Kids are quick to draw conclusions from their teachers’ reactions to situations. If I am normally direct and honest but in this type of situation I am hedging and unclear, I have helped them draw a conclusion I really do not want my students to draw.

    Rather, I need to send the clear message to my students every time, that every student in my classroom is worthy of being accepted for who they are, and that our differences are what makes this world so interesting and exciting. That is something that I can’t do if my hands, as well as my words, are tied by a neutrality requirement.
    @L Marshall

  3. JR

    I’m curious about the policies at most schools:
    (1) What percentage of schools require you to not mention the subject?
    (2) Of the schools in which you don’t have to ignore the subject completely, are you allowed to say, “There is nothing wrong with being gay”? Or is that an infringement on religion?

    I assume at any school, you can say, “S/he is important and we’re all different which is what makes us special, etc…” But can you say, “There is nothing wrong with being gay”?

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