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The Teaching Life

Counting on You

Bullying that targets GLBT students is on the rise. If you think there’s nothing you can do about it, please read on.


By Mary Ellen Flannery

No less than five kids killed themselves at the beginning of the school year last year. All were gay, or perceived to be, and had been kicked, beaten, shoved down stairways, taunted, and tormented by bullies.

Each left a devastated family, a shocked school community, and more than a few educators wondering: What can we do to prevent future deaths?

The answer: A lot.

More than 90 percent of GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender) kids say they’ve been harassed or bullied at school, according to survey by GLSEN: the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network. But, even worse, more than 30 percent say they’ve been called names or physically harmed while educators stood by—and did nothing.

Next year, when you walk into your own classroom or school-based office, consider what kind of teacher you’re going to be: the kind who idly listens to verbal harassment? Or the kind who posts a “safe space” sticker on your door and a “ThinkB4USpeak” poster on your classroom wall? When a kid comes to you and says, “I’m thinking of starting a club and wondering if you could like . . . maybe . . . ” will you offer your support or turn them away?

“You have to be the change you want to see in the world,” said Virginia teacher Jaim Foster, a member of the NEA cadre of trainers on GLBT issues. “Every day . . . I’m trying to be a reminder of human rights for everybody.”

And it’s not just a matter of moral obligation. It’s a matter of legal obligation: In late 2010, the U.S. Department of Education sent a letter to 15,000-plus schools and districts, reminding them that bullying against gay kids—or kids perceived to be gay —actually violates federal anti-discrimination laws. And it’s a matter of achievement as well: Kids who are bullied are much more likely to miss classes, do worse in school, and eventually drop out.

But just one supportive adult on a campus can change a kid’s world—and that could be you. According to GLSEN, gay kids who can’t point to a single adult get significantly worse grades, are twice as likely to miss school, and almost three times less likely to see college in their future.

When Connecticut teacher Kristie Schmidt hears her teens complain, “That’s so gay!” she quickly rejoins, “You’re not using that word correctly.” When they protest that they just meant something was lousy, she strikes again: You are insulting all gay people with your negative speech. “Do you know any gay people?” she asks.

Devon Bearden, the president of the gay-straight alliance at Little Rock Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, told NEA Today last year about a teacher who clipped a newspaper story about the gay pride parade in their community and pinned it to her bulletin board. “That was just so cool,” she recollected.

The presence of a club like Bearden’s also makes a huge difference: Nearly half of gay high-school students say their school has a GSA, and those kids are about a third as likely to be threatened or injured at school, and less than half as likely to attempt suicide. Studies also show it doesn’t make a big difference if the GSA is large or small, loud or quiet—its mere presence makes a positive difference in the lives of students.

Bearden’s club advisor first turned them down, he told NEA Today. He just had so much work to do—another assignment? No thanks. But then he reconsidered. Everybody needs a place where they fit in, he said.

NEA’s Bully Free: It Starts With Me Campaign

Aims to identify caring adults in our schools and communities who will pledge to help bullied students. These caring adults agree to listen carefully to the bullied student who comes to them and take action to stop the bullying. NEA, in turn, provides those caring adults with the resources they need to provide solace and support, ask the right questions, and take action to help stop the bullying.

Six Tips for Dealing with the Bullying of GLBT students

Any student may end up a target. All educators can help.

1. Take complaints seriously.

Please don’t dismiss bullying as “just teasing.” Listen to the student, and tell the student you will take the appropriate action. No allegation about bullying should be ignored because the charge seems improbable or because the behavior seems unlikely to recur or is perceived as a “harmless rite of passage.”

2. Report the alleged bullying.

Keep your principal informed of all the bullying cases of which you are aware of. And if the bullying seems to be based on the student’s race, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation, immediately report the student’s complaint of bullying to the authority in your district designated for investigating such incidents (often it is the district’s Title IX grievance officer.) If you don’t know who that authority is, ask your principal.  In all cases where a bullied student has come to you, follow up. Check back with the student to find out whether he or she has been informed by the school system of the steps it is taking.

3. Reassure, do not judge.

If a bullied student comes to you for help, reassure the student that you care about him or her and will do what you can. Do not, however, question the student about why he or she is being bullied. It is the behavior of the bully, the perpetrator, that matters. If a student volunteers information about his or her sexual orientation or other personal information, do not judge that student—the student’s safety and education should be your concern—and of course keep the information confidential.

4. Get the student the appropriate professional help.

If a student seems to be in emotional or psychological distress, offer to help the student get in touch with a counselor, social worker, or school psychologist right away; be supportive. But don’t give advice beyond your expertise. And if the student seems in imminent physical danger, alert the school administration immediately.

5. Stand up and speak out for students in need.

There is now a wealth of information on the Web about bullying and how to stop it. Share what you’ve learned with your colleagues, and in your staff meetings, advocate for bullied students. Become part of the solution.

6. Do something.

If in the hallway, stairwell, or your classroom—or some other school space—you witness a student being harassed and humiliated by another student, intervene—but get additional support if necessary. Everyone involved—the victim, the perpetrator, and the witnesses—needs to know this is unacceptable behavior. Research shows that creating a safe learning environment for all students requires the adults in the school working together.

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