Tag Archives: Safe Schools Improvement Act

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.

NAAFA Advocates Want Anti-Bullying Bill to Protect Overweight Kids

Boy, I don’t know about this one. I definitely would love some feedback on the latest report regarding additions some want added to the Safe Schools Improvement Act.

The Safe Schools Improvement Act would require all districts and schools that receive federal funding to implement codes of conduct which prohibit bullying and harassment, according to the bill’s co-sponsor, Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pennsylvania. Additionally, the law would require each state to compile data on cases of bullying and harassment in their schools and report that information to the U.S. Department of Education. 

An advocacy group called the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance  (NAAFA) contests that overweight children face significant harassment and bullying at school, therefore, they are asking lawmakers drafting the Safe School Improvement Act to list other characteristics students are bullied for rather than just race, religion, sexual orientation, and nationality in this bill.

This group wants to discourage children being bullied because they are heavier or shorter than their peers, and they feel that these characteristics need to be specifically spelled out in order to accomplish that goal.

Jason Docherty, an association board member explained, “One in six children are being bullied. Eighty-five percent of those bullying cases are children of size or with visible handicaps. So a federal law that does not protect those children is a federal law without teeth.”

National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance spokeswoman Peggy Howell says people of all ages face bias.

Peggy Howell, the spokeswoman for the NAAFA explained yesterday that while this group founded in 1969, has traditionally fought to end bias against overweight adults, “now we are talking about people of all ages.”

In her statement, she criticized first lady Michelle Obama for launching her Let’s Move campaign which emphasizes weight loss among children.

“When our first lady said we have to wipe out obesity in one generation, she essentially gave permission to everyone to condemn the children with higher body weight,” Howell said. “The perpetrators feel justified in their actions because, after all, the first lady said these kids have got to go.”

She went on to say that “this is one of the consequences of focusing on reducing body size, as opposed to improving health,” although she acknowledged that she didn’t believe that Michelle Obama meant any harm by her campaign.

So, the NAAFA group plans to lobby lawmakers and their staff members on Capitol Hill to persuade them to add physical characteristics to the Safe Schools Improvement Act as it works its way through Congress.

First, I am astounded that Howell turned Michelle Obama’s campaign into one that “condemns” overweight kids and “justifies” the bullying of these children. And certainly at no time did the first lady say “these kids have got to go.” We most certainly have a problem with obesity in children, and it is a physical health concern. These children are more inclined to face diabetes and other serious health issues at a very young age.

Michelle Obama has taken on the Let’s Move campaign because kids in general are more sedentary than they were in the past, and many of them do not eat well. Just because there are kids who are obese does not mean they have to remain obese. Through exercise and proper diets, most of these kids can reduce their body weight and their risk of serious health problems. Why wouldn’t Howell support this movement which will ultimately improve their life style as well as their self-esteem?

Second, please do not misunderstand what I am going to say here because I do realize that students are bullied for being overweight. I’ve seen it, and I’ve dealt with it in my classroom. It is wrong, just as bullying for any reason is wrong.

But here is my question: Where do you draw the line in your list of characteristics to include in this policy? If you say overweight, you’d better say thin. If you say short, you’d better say tall. What about big feet, big noses, and big ears? Don’t forget freckles, warts, pimples, and moles. Oh, wait; what about frizzy or curly hair? And there are always kids who wear glasses or hearing aids. What about kids who get teased because of the clothes they wear, the music they like, the books they read? And, I almost forgot; we’d better include kids who read too fast or the ones who read too slow. Then there’s always…

I think I’ve made my point. If legislators give in to this group’s demands, they’d better be ready to be inundated by all kinds of advocates out there wanting their own sensitive issue included in the wording of the law.

In my opinion, this is a pointless, waste of time and will only serve to slow down the passage of this law. Here’s the thing: bullying is bullying, whatever the reason. We know it when we see it, and we don’t need to list every physical characteristic or quality to deal with it.

So, how about a compromise? What if the Safe Schools Improvement Act includes additional wording, such as “physical characteristics and physical handicaps” along with race, religion, sexual orientation, and nationality? Would that satisfy everyone?

Sometimes less is best.

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.