Part 1: The First Responders
by Brandon Wolf • Photos by Brandon Wolf
Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance. —Senator Robert F. Kennedy, Jameson Hall, Cape Town, South Africa, June 6, 1966
This past September was a month of shock and sadness, when as many as 11 gay teens throughout the nation took their own lives due to bullying, including Asher Brown from the Houston area. During October, bullying became a part of the national discourse, and a lot of talk was generated—a mixture of rhetoric, wisdom, and conversation. By November, talk was being turned into action.
Last month, OutSmart featured an article titled “Bullying Comes Out of the Closet.” This month, we look beyond the shock, sadness, and talk, to focus on answers.
Houston School Officials Respond
The most proactive response came from the Houston Independent School District (HISD), Texas’s largest school district and the nation’s seventh largest. HISD released a statement saying, “We take bullying and bullying-related incidents seriously. Bullying is not acceptable behavior at HISD.”
At their meeting on November 11,
the HISD Board of Trustees passed an anti-bullying resolution. It pointed out that bullying “is common and affects as much as 54 percent of children; can cause real and long-lasting physical and emotional harm to young people; and has triggered an epidemic of suicide among America’s youth.”
“The board decided to adopt this resolution to send a clear message that we expect our students and staff to respect and accept all people,” says HISD board president Greg Meyers. “The recent news stories we have seen of children as young as 11 years old taking their own lives after being repeatedly bullied are tragic and unnecessary. No parent or child should have to go through that.”
But even before the passage of the board resolution, Dr. Peter Messiah, HISD’s manager of Safe Schools, was busy launching an anti-bullying initiative that had been developed during the preceding month. “We now have anti-bullying training which will be presented to all District staff,” says Messiah. “This training includes a common definition, best practices, and direction in handling bullying and bullying-related issues.”
HISD includes 298 schools and is responsible for the education of some 202,000 students. The training program means that all HISD staff members will speak the same language, follow the same guidelines, and understand the administration’s sense of urgency in dealing with bullying.
HISD Trustee for District 4, Paula Harris, called the first town hall meeting to discuss bullying on Tuesday, November 9, at Sidney Lanier Middle School. Among the speakers was Councilmember Jolanda Jones, who recalled the death of her own father, a victim of suicide. Messiah gave an overview of the anti-bullying program now being implemented. Students from District 4 spoke about what they and their schools were doing to end bullying. Asher Brown’s stepfather, David Truong, addressed the gathering, appealing for a new school environment in which the safety of each student is ensured.
Jackson Middle School Sets an Example
Another first responder was Jackson Middle School at 5100 Polk Street, which is a shining example of how bullying is being taken seriously in Houston. Walking down the halls of the school, one sees eye-catching anti-bullying posters on the walls about every 50 feet. The signs make dramatic points about what bullying is and why bullies bully. In addition, bulletin board and classroom door displays have been handmade by students.
On Saturday, November 13, Jackson Middle School held a three-hour Anti-Bullying Festival, organized by its 29-year-old principal, Kregg Cueller. Despite being an overcast and drizzly day, the school’s auditorium was filled to capacity with students and parents. The event included motivational speakers, training sessions on bullying prevention, and promotional items
such as bracelets, pins, and T-shirts. Representatives from the HISD Police Department, the Houston Fire Department, the Mayor’s Anti-Gang Task Force, and Crime Stoppers were present to raise awareness and explain intervention techniques.
Texas State Representative Carol Alvarado encouraged everyone present to join her in “standing up against bullies by reporting harassment and helping to create a safe learning environment.” Alvarado recently filed HB 130, which would require the establishment of an “Anti-Bullying Hotline” under the direction of the Department of Family & Protective Services (DFPS).
“Intimidation can be a traumatic experience for children, many of whom will not report their bullies out of fear and apprehension,” Alvarado said. “Jackson’s principal, Kregg Cueller, and HISD have done a fantastic job of setting up a friendly environment for kids to learn, but we need to spread the policy across our state.”
Other Houston-Area School Districts
Harris County has 26 independent school districts: Aldine, Alief, Channelview, Clear Creek, Crosby, Cypress-Fairbanks, Dayton, Deer Park, Galena Park, Goose Creek, Houston, Huffman, Humble, Katy, Klein, La Porte, New Caney, North Forest, Pasadena, Pearland, Sheldon, Spring, Spring Branch, Stafford, Tomball, and Waller.
As a barometer of priorities within the county, OutSmart reviewed the websites of each district. Only four of the districts—Houston, Katy, Klein, and Pearland—mentioned anti-bullying on their home page. The majority of home pages featured news of district sports teams. The websites for two dozen local private schools showed no mention of the topic. However, Internet searches turned up at least two area schools that recently hosted weeklong bullying awareness programs. Special activities were scheduled for each day to engage students in the fight against bullying.
One of those schools was Cypress Ranch High School in Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, which offered daily activities to their 2,300 students. During a Monday social studies class, all students saw a bully-awareness play produced by the theater arts class. During Tuesday’s English class, students were given a writing assignment pertaining to bullying. On Wednesday, students viewed short video clips, followed by discussion and students signing a Resolution of Respect. Thursday was “War against Bullying” day, and students wore camouflage to school. On Friday, students participated in a door decoration contest.
Pine Forest Elementary in Humble ISD also involved its students in bully awareness, sponsoring a weeklong “Buddies NOT Bullies Week” for its 700 students. Each day, students were asked to dress a different way. Monday, wearing slippers symbolized “give bullies the slip”; Tuesday, choosing mismatched clothes reminded students to appreciate differences; Wednesday, students paired up to dress like twins to find similarities in others; Thursday, wearing crazy hats symbolized taming teasing; and on Friday, students dressed like a celebrity to show that “everyone is a star.”
U of H Anti-Bullying Summit
On Saturday, November 13, the Bauer School of Business at the University of Houston (U of H) hosted an anti-bullying summit. Craig Clayton, director & diversity strategist with the U of H International Institute for Diversity & Cross Cultural Management, organized a “Rally 4 Respect” and a “Summit for Solutions.”
Sadly, the U of H event may be an indication of weak local support for anti-bullying efforts. Clayton e-mailed 8,771 local educators, inviting them to attend the summit, which was free and offered complimentary breakfast and snacks. Clayton received about 10 responses. Fewer than 50 people took advantage of the event, and a number of those people were there as panel members. Four panels had been planned to run concurrently. Instead, two panels participated, each for an hour. Despite the tepid response, Clayton felt confident that the idea was a good one. “I know there are some people who want more information and knowledge.”
Other Local Events
In the Houston area, a group of students from Hamilton Middle School, Asher Brown’s Cy-Fair school, held a Saturday car wash and raised $900. They also formed a team for the recent “Out of the Darkness” suicide prevention walk, calling themselves Asher’s Angels and raising an additional $1,100. A local business donated shirts for the team to wear—bright red (Asher’s favorite color) with a design of an angel-winged Asher.
Local hip hop artist Jus E and openly gay performer Tim’m West wrote an original song for the It Gets Better campaign, enlisting many of Asher’s Angels to appear in a video to be posted on YouTube.
Sally Huffer, spokesperson for the Montrose Counseling Center (MCC), reports, “Youth Services Specialist Deb Murphy, Anti-Violence Program Specialist Allison Vogt, and Clinical Director Chris Kerr, have been busy speaking about bullying to a number of groups, and the requests keep coming in. Getting the word out about our programs is our biggest barrier, especially since the schools operate independently of one another. Some are receptive to having us come in and speak, but most are reluctant. If anyone in the community has connections for us to offer education and training around these issues, it would help us tremendously.”
Local fifth grader Valor Carter recently became the first recipient of the Anti-Bully Hero Award, a joint initiative of HISD, KPRC Local 2, and Houston Family Magazine. Young Carter was honored for reporting a bullying incident to trusted adults, rather than choosing the violent alternative of employing skills he learned in becoming a red belt in tae-kwan-do.
On November 19, OutSmart partnered with Guava Lamp bar to sponsor a fundraiser for the Trevor Project’s “It Gets Better” campaign. Mayor Annise Parker, a member of Houston’s LGBT community, premiered her own “It Gets Better” video at the event. The very personal and sensitive video was produced by Houston’s High School for Performing and Visual Arts.
On December 7 at 7 p.m., MCC presents Bullied: A Student, a School, and a Case That Made History. Bullied tells the story of Jamie Nabozny, who took a stand against the bullying he endured. He went to court and won the case.
National Media Response
On a national level, the hit television show Glee, set in a fictional high school, has just introduced a new plotline dealing with bullying. Television talk shows continue to address the subject. Actor Colin Farrell made an especially moving call to end bullying during a recent appearance on Ellen DeGeneres’s popular daytime talk show, Ellen.
America became a different place after this September’s tragedies. The deaths of so many gay teens in such a short time have mobilized efforts within and beyond the LGBT community to bring an end to bullying. But the recent mid-term elections also changed the political landscape of our country and our state, putting the future of anti-bullying legislation into question.
Next month, OutSmart looks at the politics of anti-bullying and explains the need for mandatory anti-bullying training in every school.
Brandon Wolf is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine.