By Steve Charing
South Carroll High School in Sykesville, MD held a "Unity Day" on March 26 to celebrate diversity. Included in the program in front of the entire student body was a presentation on lgbt issues by members of PFLAG that focused on the consequences of hate speech, hateful words and bullying.
To amplify the point, the presentations were followed by students’ writing insulting words on pieces of paper, like ‘faggot," "that’s so gay," "homo," etc. and proceeded to shred these epithets in the hope that the symbolic gestures would lead to permanent eradication of the vile language and the pervasive bullying that continues to exist in schools.
As well received as this demonstration was, apparently not all were happy about the event. A Mt. Airy woman in a letter to Gazette.com called the shredding of paper an "empty gesture" and stating that "words kill" is a "platitude." She wrote, "Words do not kill. Behavior kills."
Recently two suicides related to anti-gay bullying were tragedies that could have been avoided. An 11 year-old boy, Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, hung himself on April 6 in Springfield, MA. His suicide comes about a year after eighth-grader Lawrence King was shot and killed by a fellow student in a California classroom, allegedly because he was gay.
A little over a week later a second suicide—also by hanging—took place in Georgia by fifth-grader, Jaheem Herrera. "He was bullied relentlessly.
They called him gay and a snitch," his stepfather told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
"[Jaheem's best friend] said, 'He told me that he’s tired of everybody always messing with him in school. He is tired of telling the teachers and the staff, and they never do anything about the problems. So, the only way out is by killing himself.' "
Although neither student identified as gay, both students endured anti-lgbt bullying until they couldn’t take it anymore. And in both cases, the schools did not act on complaints.
Ironically, the suicides occurred in a month in which schools around the country participate in "Day of Silence" events to draw attention to bullying in the schools.
This effort has been promulgated by GLSEN—the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. A leader in anti-bullying education, GLSEN presents statistics that show how acute bullying is in schools—especially against LGBT students.
In a 2007 National School Climate Survey, 86.2% of LGBT students reported being verbally harassed, 44.1% reported being physically harassed and 22.1% reported being physically assaulted at school in the past year because of their sexual orientation. 73.6% heard derogatory remarks such as "faggot" or "dyke" frequently or often at school.
More than half (60.8%) of students reported that they felt unsafe in school because of their sexual orientation, and more than a third (38.4%) felt unsafe because of their gender expression. 31.7% of LGBT students missed a class and 32.7% missed a day of school in the past month because of feeling unsafe, compared to only 5.5% and 4.5%, respectively, of a national sample of secondary school students.
These numbers cannot be ignored.
"Anti-LGBT bullying affects all students, gay and straight alike," says GLSEN Executive Director Eliza Byard, Ph.D. "Bullies learn from an early age that anti-lgbt language is one of the most effective ways to torment their peers. And far too often, schools fail to address the problem."
GLSEN proposes a four-pronged approach to address anti-lgbt bullying and harassment. They recommend that schools adopt a comprehensive anti-bullying policy that includes in the categories sexual orientation and gender identity and expression.
They encourage required training so that school staff can be well equipped to respond to anti-gay name-calling, bullying and harassment in an effective and timely manner.
GLSEN supports student efforts, such as establishing Gay-Straight Alliances in the schools to help prevent anti-gay bullying.
And lastly, GLSEN recommends that age-appropriate, inclusive curricula be instituted to help students understand and respect difference within the school community and society as a whole.
"These two tragedies highlight the need for schools to do more to make sure their hallways and classrooms are safe for all students," says Byard. "Education, community and federal leaders need to come together and find solutions to the endemic problem of bullying in America’s schools. We owe it to our children to do everything we can to make sure they are safe in school."
Otherwise, young lives are being cut way too short.