By James Gilliam, Deputy Executive Director, ACLU of Southern California & Joey Hernández, LGBTQ Student Rights Advocate, ACLU of Southern California
A version of this blog post originally appeared on Huffington Post’s Gay Voices.
“Hey ACLU, I’m a gay 9th grader. My teachers don’t treat me differently because of my gender expression. I have both gay and straight friends. I get to live my life without being discriminated against. I’ve never been bullied. And I feel safe at school every day.”
We’ve never gotten that call here at the ACLU of Southern California LGBTQ Student Rights Project. More often, we get calls about incidences of school bullying that no one should have to endure. We hear from students who face judgmental teachers, unsympathetic principals, and ineffective superintendents, while being harassed by their peers on a daily basis. We work toward a future that promises that all students, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) youth, feel safe expressing themselves.
But trying to address all the calls we get about anti-LGBTQ bullying feels like treating the symptoms without addressing the illness. The real issue is this: How do we stop the calls from coming in?
The solution to the national bullying problem isn’t being a bystander until something bad happens. Just like the world’s best ambulance driver can’t prevent a drunk driver from getting behind the wheel, the most experienced lawyer can’t stop students from bullying their peers. We have to teach school officials how to address issues of unsafe school climates before harassment starts or escalates.
Our LGBTQ Student Rights Project works with schools to create safe school environments. We educate schools on LGBTQ student rights, about the preventative policies and procedures they should adopt to avoid finding themselves in a courtroom, and we connect them to the community resources that can help schools address the anti-gay climate in their schools. In our experience, school administrators would prefer to sit in a classroom now and learn how to prevent bullying than stand at a podium at a press conference defending themselves from a lawsuit against their school.
For example, Welcoming Schools, a comprehensive guide produced by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, teaches elementary school students about family diversity, gender stereotyping and name-calling. It teaches students the negative impacts of phrases like “that’s so gay” and prompts students to think about why pre-conceived ideas of men and women are harmful to gender nonconforming students.
GSA Network works for the creation of Gay Straight Alliances in middle and high schools across the country. According to GLSEN’s 2009 Climate Survey, schools with GSAs are more accepting of LGBTQ students, who are subsequently more likely to feel safe at school. LGBTQ students who have a GSA in their school experience less physical and verbal harassment from their peers.
Project SPIN is a coalition of organizations that works to address the conditions that contribute to bullying, homophobia, LGBTQ youth suicide and suicidal ideation in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Members of Project SPIN conduct trainings and implement programs that stop name-calling in hallways, physical abuse on school buses, and ambivalence from school staff towards bullying.
At Cal State Fullerton, Dr. Karyl Ketchum is teaching “Understanding and Addressing Bullying,” an online resource and professional course. It teaches educational staff how to identify bullying and how this harassment creates a school environment that inhibits a student from succeeding academically. The course’s video lectures and interviews instruct teachers how to intervene in bullying situations and how to create teachable moments. Most important, it teaches the steps educators can take to preventing bullying and harassment before it starts.
These programs make a difference in students’ lives, but they depend on school cooperation to make these changes. How do we get schools to take a stance against bullying?
It starts with you: parents and their children need to become the anti-bullying champions of their own school experiences. All across the state, students have the right to feel safe in their schools, and their parents have the right to demand it. Families in our community must tell their principals’ and superintendents’ that they aren’t going to wait to end bullying until after another tragedy occurs.