The Beginning of the End of Bullying

Part 2: The Politics of Anti-Bullying
by Brandon Wolf • Photos by Brandon Wolf

Last month, OutSmart featured “The Beginning of the End of Bullying—Part 1: The First Responders.” We focused on the Houston Independent School District (HISD), the seventh-largest school district in the country. HISD has proactively set out to train all its staff on what bullying is, what to do when it happens, and how HISD prioritizes these efforts. We also looked at HISD’s Jackson Middle School and their model anti-bullying program. This school has set a distinctive example that other schools could—and should—emulate. In this second of a two-part series, OutSmart explores the politics of anti-bullying.

Federal and State Anti-Bullying Legislation

The national mid-term elections on November 2, 2010, changed the political landscape. The U.S. House of Representatives is now controlled by the Republican Party, and the Texas Legislature now has the largest Republican majority in 140 years.

Anticipated federal anti-bullying legislation will most likely be proposed by Democrats, who are expected to insist on LGBT-inclusion. At both the federal and the state level, the passage of such legislation now remains seriously in question, as Republicans have not been generally supportive of LGBT-inclusive legislation. Nevertheless, Texas state representatives Garnet Coleman, Jessica Farrar, and Carol Alvarado plan to introduce legislation.

She loves us, she loves us not: Cindy McCain supports the NOH8 campaign, but . . .

Houston Stonewall Young Democrats (HSYD) is planning a winter “Brunch Against Bullying” on January 16. A portion of the proceeds will go to The Trevor Project (a national 24-hour, toll-free confidential suicide hotline for gay and questioning youth). Remaining proceeds will be used to charter buses to Austin for the annual Lobby Day in March. Working in conjunction with Equality Texas, HSYD wants to raise awareness of bullying in order to get traction on that issue in the current legislative session. Texas State Representative Ellen Cohen and Texas State Board of Education Trustee Anna Eastman will be in attendance at the brunch.

On the national front, Peter Messiah, director of HISD’s Safe and Drug Free-Schools initiative, indicates that his office has been asked to take leadership of a bully focus group that will work closely with U.S. Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee’s office in crafting language acceptable for federal anti-bullying legislation.

Cindy McCain, wife of Republican Senator John McCain, may have provided a portent of the future of upcoming federal anti-bullying legislation. In mid-November, she appeared in a NOH8 campaign anti-bullying video, saying, “Religious and political leaders tell our LGBT youth that they have no future.” Referring to the military’s current Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, she added, “They can’t serve our country openly.” Within 24 hours, McCain did a head-spinning reversal, sending out a Tweet explaining that although she supports the NOH8 campaign, she also supports her husband’s efforts to kill the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

Mandatory Anti-Bullying Training

Even the most idealistic person will likely admit that mandates produce more action than attempts to elicit empathy. There is no such mandate currently in Texas; each school district presently follows its own leaders, traditions, and priorities. A legislative mandate would introduce anti-bullying training into all schools—not just the ones that have enlightened leadership.

Anti-bullying curricula were developed years ago, so there is no need to re-invent the wheel. Not surprisingly, these programs have come from groups who understand the effects of discrimination. Best-practice programs are available through the Anti-Defamation League; the Human Rights Campaign; the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network; and the Southern Poverty Law Center. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services also offers programs.

None of these organizations approach schools with a “one size fits all” program. Each school is evaluated individually, and the most realistic program is then built from a range of resources. For the more progressive schools, GroundSpark produces educator-acclaimed films such as Straightlaced, It’s Elementary, Let’s Get Real, and That’s a Family.

Bullying Outside of Schools

Murray Newman, a criminal defense attorney and a former Harris County prosecutor, recently wrote on his Internet blog: “It seems that since the dawn of time there have always been bullies in one form or another. . . . There never seems to be a shortage of people who hold more power, strength, or popularity than someone less fortunate, who elect to use said power, strength, or popularity to abuse. Nobody should ever die over bullying. To paraphrase The Once and Future King, it should never be might that makes right, but right which makes might.”

Ridding society of bullying will require the building of a new culture. There are long-held beliefs that children build character by dealing with bullies, and that boys need to endure bullying in order to “learn how to be a man.” The taboo against reporting bullying is ancient. The old English nursery rhyme says, “Tattletale snit, your tongue shall be split, and every little dog in town will have a little bit.” More modern taunts for tattletales such as rat fink, stool pigeon, and snitch derive from underworld lingo for criminals who cooperate with police.

The recent U of H Bullying Summit last November emphasized that bullying takes place in the classroom, on the playground, in the home, and in the workplace. As adults, it’s easy to dismiss the problem as a simple school discipline issue. But children follow the adult examples they witness. Adults need to seriously look at their own actions and attitudes, and ask if they are promoting bullying by poor example.

Preventing Teenage Suicides

An important thing to remember about the recent wave of suicides is that these bullying victims were teenagers. The teenage years are a challenging period in anyone’s life. Children begin to pull away from their parents and establish their own personalities, values, and attitudes. During this period, the most important influence on youth is their peer group, and the worst thing that can befall them is to be different—to be labeled un-cool and treated as an outsider.

Teens pay close attention to their peers, and to the people their peers consider heroes. Thus, in order to deal with youth on their own terms, it’s important to identify their heroes and work to recruit these heroes to the anti-bullying cause. Students would listen with rapt attention if players from Houston’s football, basketball, and soccer teams visited local schools and urged their young fans to realize that bullying is un-cool, and that it’s cool to try to intervene or to report bullying.

The success of appealing to teenagers through their heroes is most vividly evidenced by the success of rap star Eminem’s anti-bullying video, “No Love.” By mid-December 2010, the video had logged 25 million YouTube viewers. In comparison, the upbeat and bouncy “It Gets Better” video by young Broadway stars has logged only 250,000 viewers.

The “It Gets Better” campaign has generated a lot of supportive YouTube videos recorded by people from all walks of life, including many of the heroes of today’s teenagers. These videos could be a hopeful sign that we are beginning to build a new culture of respect among our youth.

Influencing School Policies

Members of the LGBT community need to be aware that school district policies start at the top, with the election of school board members, and trickle down to each school in a district. Not everyone has the time or interest to work closely with anti-bullying programs, but everyone can vote. For the LGBT community, it is especially important to get to know your school district officials, whether or not you have school-age children.

Make it a point to know which district you live in and who your school board members are. Keep up with school district news and talk to parents of school-age children. Look for endorsements of school board members by local LGBT political organizations. Encourage good candidates to screen with these organizations.

On November 30, 2010, Juliet Stipeche, the candidate endorsed by the Houston GLBT Political Caucus, won a run-off race for HISD Trustee from District 8 by a mere 44 votes. She was sworn in on December 9.

Stipeche already has ideas about ending bullying: “A successful intervention program requires a district-wide commitment to implement a solid policy that changes and addresses bullying. First and foremost, everyone in HISD should be knowledgeable and committed to the enforcement of HISD’s anti-bullying policy. Second, HISD must create a means of reporting, documenting, and tracking bullying within each school. An anonymous reporting option should be made available for students, teachers, parents, and HISD support personnel as a means of reporting and identifying ‘hot spots’ that require additional intervention, training, and support. HISD should partner with local community organizations such as HATCH, GLSEN, and HRC to assist in developing and implementing proper training programs.”

The Atmosphere at Hamilton Middle

OutSmart talked with the parent of a Hamilton Middle School student to get an inside view of the school where gay teen suicide Asher Brown attended. This parent told us that the school sent home two letters, a week apart. The first letter reported that a student had died, and the second reported that the student had committed suicide. Neither letter mentioned Asher Brown by name.

“In the school cafeteria is a large banner that says ‘No Place for Hate in Texas,’ and then individual banners that name the years that the school participated in the program. The last banner was dated 2004–2005,” this parent told us.

It’s also been reported that the school yearbook staff proposed a memorial page for Asher, similar to one created for a student who died last year of a terminal illness. The page was rejected by the school’s principal. There is even talk that Asher’s school picture, taken before his death, may not be included in the school yearbook.

Hamilton Middle School’s response to the incident was to post one anti-bullying poster, our source stated. The poster reads “Bullying Hurts . . . So Don’t.” It shows one picture of a young student being threatened by another student with a clenched fist, then a second picture showing them shaking hands. The magical formula for the bully’s transformation is unspecified.

“Asher tried so hard to fit in,” says our source. “He even turned down being placed in advanced classes, because he felt he would be bullied for being smart.”

The Darkness before the Dawn

The recent media attention to bullying has raised the awareness of many Americans. But it has also revealed a heart of darkness that still exists. Following Asher Brown’s death, a memorial page was set up on Facebook. Some of the postings were so vile and insensitive that Asher’s parents finally shut down the page.

Clint McCance, a school board member in the Midland School District in northern Arkansas, responded to the October 20, 2010, Spirit Day with postings to Facebook: “Seriously they want me to wear purple because five queers killed themselves. The only way im wearin it for them is if they all commit suicide. I cant believe the people of this world have gotten this stupid. We are honoring the fact that they sinned and killed thereselves because of their sin. REALLY PEOPLE.”

McCance also wrote that he would kick any of his children out of his home if he found out they were gay. Interviewed by Anderson Cooper on CNN, McCance later apologized, but avoided answering a question about whether he would kick a gay child of his out of his home. He also resigned from the school board.

In Fort Worth, KLIF 570 AM radio host Chris Krok launched a broadside attack on City Councilmember Joel Burns, who had delivered an emotional appeal to stop bullying of LGBT youth at the beginning of a Council session. He attacked Burns for being “self-centered” and “wasting the Council’s time.” Then he mocked Burns’ comments with a pronounced lisp. He later issued an on-air apology after a protest by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance against Defamation.

In mid-November 2010, Bristol and Willow Palin engaged in a Facebook conflict with people who panned their mother’s new television show. Sixteen-year-old Willow employed a string of homophobic slurs in response to the negative remarks. At the time of the writing of this story, the only word about her remarks was from a family friend who said that Willow was just defending her mother and that she didn’t usually talk that way.

A local Channel 13 news report on the Jackson Middle School Anti-Bullying Festival drew online criticisms. One reader commented, “Wow, glad the school can make budget cuts and spend what little is left over on ‘bullying.’ I guess it’s better to graduate stupid children rather than bullied children?”

Another comment read: “The way to stop bullies is by hitting them square in the mouth. It worked when I was a kid. We ‘baby’ our kids too much these days instead of teaching them to stick up for themselves. By not teaching them to stand up, we are wimping our country out and when all these kids grow up and run the country, they will back down from a fight and let a foreign power take us over. Sad.”

Asher’s Parents Dedicated to the Cause

Of all the people affected locally by the suicide epidemic, David and Amy Truong, Asher Brown’s parents, have taken the biggest hit. It’s commonly noted that nothing is harder to endure than for a parent to lose a child. “My family was destroyed,” says David Truong. “We don’t want that to happen to other families.”

The Truongs accept most invitations to speak to anti-bullying audiences. Their presence brings a special poignancy to any gathering. Asher Brown is no longer just a media image. He’s the son of real people—parents who have lost a beloved child. It is the Truongs who have to return to a home which was once brightened by Asher’s presence. Now they can cling only to memories in photo albums and his bedroom as he left it. This past holiday season was their first without Asher.

The Truongs are still working with an attorney to file a lawsuit against Hamilton Middle School. Charges against classmates and school administrators are possible. A federal civil rights lawsuit is a potential, yet difficult, avenue for the family as well. But historically, lawsuits against school systems are hard to win.

The Road Ahead—Making It Get Better

Cultural changes don’t happen overnight. They take years, even decades. But they start with the first step, and it takes patience and perseverance to succeed.  However, with the lives of LGBT youth at stake, there is no other option but to begin the process.

Despite all the recent awareness of bullying, tragedy struck again in early November 2010. Fourteen-year-old Brandon Bitner, an accomplished violinist, took his life by jumping in front of a tractor trailer. He left a note saying he was tired of being bullied.

As members of the LGBT community, each of us needs to support efforts to rid our schools of bullying. We need to look seriously at our local school systems and at our own lives. And we need to support anti-bullying legislation at federal and state levels.

In response to the recent tragedies, columnist Dan Savage launched the “It Gets Better” campaign, encouraging video messages to be posted to You Tube to tell LGBT youth that life gets better after high school. From this effort, another effort has taken life. The “Make It Better” Project takes the issue one step further, encouraging video messages that tell how individuals are helping to make it better.

It won’t get better until we make it better.

Brandon Wolf is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine.


Brandon Wolf

Brandon Wolf is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.

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