Tag Archives: GLSEN

The Fight Against Bullying Moves to Congress

As the Senate education committee continued to haggle over how to redraft the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) last month, Democratic Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota spoke up passionately for a new law to incorporate language which would specifically protect LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) students. Rather than leaving such policies to individual states and school districts, he and other lawmakers are pushing to adopt legislation to protect students from harassment and bullying which would apply to all schools nationwide.

In Sen. Franken’s plea, he reminded the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee of several high-profile cases which have occurred in recent years, in which individuals committed suicide after being bullied due to their perceived or actual sexual orientation.

“Nine out of 10 LGBT kids are harassed or bullied in school. One-third report having skipped school in the last month because they felt unsafe, and study after study has shown that LGBT youth are more likely to commit suicide. But the sad fact is that our federal laws are failing” those students, Franken said.

And comparing his proposed addition to civil rights protections to federal anti-discrimination laws that protect students on the basis of race and sex, he said, “Well, yet again, we are facing a group of students that is facing pervasive systemic discrimination. There is no law that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation at school.”

Recently, the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights has begun investigating schools where students have committed suicide in order to determine how they handled the bullying of these students based on their sexual orientation. Tehachapi Unified school district in California was actually faulted by this office for failing to stop schoolmates from constantly harassing openly-gay Seth Walsh, who was 13 years old when he committed suicide. 

In spite of Sen. Franken’s strong feeling that such legislation needed to be added to the rewriting of ESEA, he withdrew his proposal which would make LGBT students a protected class and grant them the power to sue their tormentors, deciding instead to wait until the bill’s rewrite hits the Senate floor to reoffer this proposal.

Sen. Franken said that he would work to rewrite his proposal in the meantime, in the hopes of getting Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill, to endorse it as well. Sen. Kirk and Sen. Robert Casey, D-Pa, have proposed the Safe Schools Improvement Act, which would call for all schools and districts that accept federal funds to create codes of conduct to prohibit bullying and harassment for any reason, which would include gender identity and sexual orientation. Additionally, it would require states to track bullying cases, reporting such statistics to the Education Department, which would then report the state to Congress.

In response to Sen. Franken’s remarks, Sen. Kirk said, “If we can more clearly define rights and focus on education so the maximum number of students survive and have healthy self-esteem, and … kids learn a fundamental American value of tolerance, I think this is something we should explore on the floor.”

It remains uncertain, however, whether a proposal calling for anti-bullying language and explicit protection for students based on gender identity or sexual orientation would even pass in both chambers.

Some, like Sasha Pudelski, who is a legislative specialist for the American Association of School Administrators, which represents superintendents and district-level officials, said that her organization can’t support federal anti-bullying legislation.

“We believe decisions as to how a school defines, prevents, addresses, and reports bullying should be a decision made by the superintendent, school administrators, school board, parents, teachers, and other engaged community members in the context of state law and existing civil rights protections in federal law and case law,” she said.

She recommended instead that Congress provide money for districts to create school-wide, evidence-based bullying-prevention programs.

The director of federal affairs for the National School Boards Association, Roberta Stanley, reported that her group would also prefer to allow states and districts to adopt bullying policies that were appropriate to the needs of their communities.

Stanley said, “Depending on where you sit and where you live, it may have never been a problem.”

Eliza Byard, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, GLSEN, disagreed, stating that specific laws and policies which make clear who they protect are more effective than more general bullying prevention measures. She is in support of Sen. Franken’s proposal as well as Sen. Kirk and Sen. Casey’s proposal due to their unique goals.

Of bullying policies that don’t name LGBT students specifically, Byard says, “When unpopular, potentially difficult, maybe complicated issues come up, teachers may be afraid to act. If you don’t name it, they don’t act.”

If neither measure wins the support of the full Senate, Education Week points out that within the body of the Senate reauthorization bill, bullying is addressed, although the language does not specifically refer to LGBT students.

The bill reads that any state which receives a grant under the Successful, Safe, and Healthy Students program must establish policies “that prevent and prohibit conduct that is sufficiently severe, persistent, or pervasive to limit a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from a program or activity of a public school or educational agency, or to create a hostile or abusive educational environment at a program or activity of a public school or educational agency, including acts of verbal, nonverbal, or physical aggression, intimidation, or hostility.”

We will have to wait to see if Congress agrees to more specific LGBT language in their anti-bullying legislation. If they do, it will be interesting to see if naming it really stops the bullying.

Boy Attacks Gay Student Captured on Cell Phone

If you follow my blogs at all, you know that I am an advocate for strong anti-bullying policies. What just happened in my very own state on October 17 is a perfect example of just how rampant and violent bullying has become, and makes me more determined than ever to continue to be annoyingly vocal, if necessary, about bullying of any kind. Why am I so outraged as I write this blog? Well, let me lay out the facts of the matter because I believe they speak for themselves.

At Union-Scioto High School in Chillicothe, Ohio, a city about 50 miles south of Columbus, an innocent, young, gay man was attacked when he entered his classroom by another student who was clearly waiting for him to arrive. The horrendous event, which was captured on a cell phone video and later posted to Facebook, shows a boy waiting until his unnamed victim enters the room, at which point the violent attack begins.

PHOTO: The mother of a fifteen year old gay student is seeking retaliation to the bully that beat her son while bystanders took video on their cellphones.

Rebecca Collins, the boy’s mother, told ABC’s affiliate WSYX in Ohio exactly what happened. “The boy stood there and waited and waited on him. As soon as he walked in the door, the boy hits. [My son] walks away — ‘What did I do? Why are they doing this?’ and keeps walking away. He turns around and tries to defend himself and then he tries to get away and the boy grabs him and beats the living crap out of him.”

Her son told them, “I covered myself and shielded my body, and he kept hitting. Nobody did anything.”

Am I alone when I say that the victim’s words chill me to the bone? First, who would be so hate-filled that they would attack someone so publicly simply for being gay? One can only assume that this student deliberately chose to attack this boy in school to have an audience; to make him feel more of a man, and to make sure it was documented through a cell phone for the world to see.

And how could a room full of students, who you can see milling around in the video, do nothing to stop the beating of a fellow student? That frightens me even more than the beating itself. No one felt compelled to stand up for another human being who was being beaten, not for anything he has done but for what he is? No one in that classroom felt indignant, horrified, something that even remotely resembles compassion for a victim?

And, finally, what kind of person would calmly video-tape the whole attack for the express purpose of posting it later to Facebook in order to further humiliate this young man? There is a sickness in our nation; a perverse preoccupation within our young people to beat someone up and capture it on video to share online, as though it is something to be proud of. Whoever took this cell phone video is culpable as well.

Collins reported that two of her son’s teeth were broken due to this malicious attack, and he may also have suffered from a concussion. “It turns my stomach,” she said, “It’s my son. I don’t care, and they did it just because he’s a homosexual.”

So, what happened to these students? Well, the boy who attacked Collins’ son served a three-day suspension, and there was no mention of any other disciplinary action for the video-taper or the bystanders who did nothing to help this boy. Really?

James Osborne, the principal at the high school, said, “We have never had an incident of this nature. I am not saying we have never had any reports of bullying– we have just as much as any school. But we’ve never had anything of this magnitude.” He also admitted that although the school has an anti-bullying policy in place, it does not have a gay-straight alliance.

I am curious how a school with an anti-bullying policy in place would not be much tougher on both the attacker and those who, by their apparent compliance since they did nothing to intervene, seem to bear guilt as well. The message that this principal sent was extremely wimpy, as far as I am concerned. Will it stop future attacks of this nature? I think not.

In my opinion, Osborne let his students down when he didn’t take this situation more seriously and use it to make some necessary changes to their current anti-bullying policy. First, treat this situation as a criminal act, which it was, and be tougher on the disciplinary consequences. Second, start dealing with the obvious issues in that school in regards to LGBT students. Get some dialogue going, get a gay-straight alliance in place so that students like this victim have a group that supports them, and get counselors and staff members to work with these students to discuss tolerance (and that means tolerance of all students who might be different in some way) and send the clear message that this behavior will not be tolerated in the future. Teach your students how to deal with bullies as an observer. Encourage and reward students who join together to stop bullying when they see it taking place.

There was fertile ground here; an opportunity to take a terrible situation and use it as a wake-up call for change. Instead, there was a slap on the wrist and an apparent indifference towards those who just watched the mayhem occur.

And apparently Union-Scioto High School is not alone in its attitude towards LGBT students. GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network reports that one in four LGBT students have experienced some kind of assault in Ohio each year. Data from its 2009 National Climate Survey showed that these students were “punched, kicked or injured with a weapon” at least once in that year because of their sexual orientation. Additionally, almost 61% of LGBT students in Ohio experienced some form of harassment or reported being threatened by other students through emails, text messaging, or through postings on social networking sites.

Collins’ son can attest to that. He told reporters that he has been bullied regularly and that a recent comment: “Check out the definition of a faggot” appeared on a posting with his picture on Facebook.

Well, just like me, Rebecca Collins is outraged by the manner in which this attack against her son was handled, and she has decided to seek some real justice. She has filed criminal charges against her son’s bully, claiming that what he did was a hate crime. No arrests have been made at this time, but the Ross County Sheriff’s office is now investigating the attack.

Rebecca summarized the situation quite well when she said, “Just for all the people out there who have hate in their heart — they need to let it go. People are going to be who they are.”

And she is right, but until society gets that, they will need to be taught. And schools, just like Union-Scioto High School in Chillicothe, need to take the necessary steps to ensure that students like Rebecca’s son can safely attend their schools without fear of harassment or physical attack.

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.