Dying for Change
Like most young people who attempt suicide, Caleb was sent to a psychiatric hospital for a week of monitoring after he’d recovered from his overdose of painkillers.
He was given anti-depressants, sleep medications, and counseling in a ward of about 10 other kids.
It was there that Caleb finally found the support he’d been looking for: All but one of his fellow patients were gay or lesbian.
“It helped me get out of my shell,” he said. “It made me feel like I wasn’t alone.”
Caleb’s story illustrates why anti-bullying measures must be about action and not merely policy, said Vann.
Until staffers receive training, expectations are made clear, and violators of school policy — whether students, faculty, or staff — are held accountable, the bullying of LGBT students will be allowed to continue, he said. And he blamed “political calculations” for keeping those reforms from being enacted.
“To ignore [the toll that bullying takes] because we don’t want to engage in politics is unfortunate,” he said.
With an issue like homosexuality, the politics may be impossible to escape.
The Republican-dominated Texas Legislature received widespread praise last year for passing an anti-bullying bill that expands the definition of bullying to include online harassment, allows staff training in prevention of bullying, requires school districts to adopt anti-bullying policies, and allows for the transfer of bullies to another campus.
It was one of at least seven anti-bullying bills introduced last year, most of which included specific protections for gay youth. The one that passed, however, did not.
“Sometimes you just settle for less, because that’s all you can get done,” said State Rep. Lon Burnam of Fort Worth, a co-author of the bill. “We’ve been on the defense on that issue ever since Republicans took over. The fact that we got it passed at all was significant.”
According to a 2010 poll funded by Equality Texas, which lobbies the legislature on LGBT issues, 79 percent of Texas voters support legislation that would provide direction to Texas teachers on how to protect all children from bullying, including gay teenagers and the children of gay and lesbian parents.
When the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network conducted a 2009 survey of more than 7,000 students across the country, the group found that sexual orientation and gender expression accounted for the highest rates of both verbal and physical harassment. Of the 510 respondents in Texas, nearly half reported physical harassment because of sexual orientation. That’s compared to 13 percent who said they were harassed on the basis of their religion, 12 percent because of their race or ethnicity, and 8 percent for a disability.
Some states have taken notice.
Colorado, Arkansas, and New York passed anti-bullying measures last year that require school districts to protect students from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Fourteen states now have such laws on the books.
On a national scale, the White House has been steadily applying pressure to create better protections for gay young people.
The issue will only heat up in coming months. As elections near, President Barack Obama’s support for same-sex marriage and Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s physical assault, in his high school days, on a gay teenager are sure to be part of the debate.
In March, the White House hosted the first-ever LGBT Conference on Safe Schools and Communities at the University of Texas at Arlington. Top government speakers including U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder spoke about the dire necessity of creating safe environments for gay students.
Though four Fort Worth counseling and student intervention staff members attended, not a single district administrator showed up.
“The White House was here in our own backyard, and they didn’t show up,” Vallarino said. “That speaks volumes.”
Lisa’s son came out of the closet when he was 11 — an unusually early age, according to gay adults that Lisa talked to.
So when James asked his mother, a Fort Worth teacher, if he could participate in the National Day of Silence (in which students across the country refuse to speak as a protest against the silencing of harassed LGBT kids), she agreed on the condition that he explain his actions ahead of time to each of his teachers.
One of those instructors, a teacher of the year, outed him in front of the class, telling him “to be quiet as he should be, because all gay people were going to hell anyway.” That was in 2008. The principal told Lisa she’d spoken with the teacher about his inappropriate behavior.
After that, James had to eat lunch alone. He was taunted by a group of boys, and his closest friend shunned him. His mother contacted the principal, and the students were told to stop bullying him.
“Of course, things escalated,” Lisa said.
Two boys promised to beat him up. They were suspended for three days.
Then he got to high school. Lisa hoped things would get better. They got worse.
James sank into depression and started talking about suicide. At one point, he was hospitalized –– his mother wouldn’t say for what.
“By that time, I was frantic,” she said.
In freshman math class, James’ peers repeatedly called him “faggot.” The teacher did nothing. Lisa talked to the principal, and James was moved to a PE class instead. A few days later, the lead bully showed up again. “It’s just amazing to me that they didn’t check to see that the kid that had bullied him was in the same class,” she said.
James tried to see a counselor, she said. It took five days to get an appointment, and when he gave her handwritten notes detailing the names and incidents of boys bullying him, she said she’d take care of it. The notes disappeared. The principal promised results.
James is still in a Fort Worth high school. His name and his mother’s name have been changed to protect his identity. It’s been five years since Lisa’s son came out, and she’s less than optimistic about the district’s shiny new commitment to creating a better environment for students like her son.
“Year after year of this is pretty discouraging. There is really no consequence to bullying,” she said. “You keep hearing ‘They’re just kids,’ or ‘Boys will be boys,’ or ‘It wasn’t malicious.’ Or they’ll assure me they’ll deal with it. They don’t.”
Burns has heard plenty of stories like that.
He became a national symbol for the movement to end LGBT bullying after a dramatic, tear-filled speech at an October 2010 council meeting, during which he described his own brush with suicide as a young gay student.
Burns still gets phone calls from students and parents complaining about bullying from other students and apathy from school staff. Most of the parents he’s talked to, regardless of their political and spiritual beliefs, want the district to teach students civility and respect, he said.
“They want the district to produce future adults who can function in the real world, in a society that’s fair-minded and treats people with dignity,” Burns said. “I see all of our kids losing out, the straight kids too. When you take any one segment of a society and ostracize them, it takes away from everyone else the ability to understand the diversity of the society we live in.”
If there’s one thing district officials and Fort Worth’s gay activists agree on, it’s this: Even if bullying is inevitable in one form or another, its tragic results don’t have to be.
According to Nelson, Herrera, and McGarry, possible solutions include:
• Approve anti-bullying policies that include protections for LGBT students.
• Train administrators and staff on how to respond to LGBT harassment.
• Inform all principals about the requirement under federal law to provide equal access for all students to student organizations, including gay-straight alliances.
• Enforce a policy that holds violators accountable.
The Fort Worth school board has already taken the first step.
As for the rest of it, Everest said the district is committed to creating a culture of “open-mindedness,” though she added that it won’t happen overnight.
“We have a huge task,” she said. “We are failing our kids if we don’t teach them the life skill of being able to share different opinions and hear different opinions respectfully.”
Until change comes, Lisa said, schools will remain “tough, lonely places” for gay and lesbian students like her son.
“It has to stop being promises, and it has to start being something that we can hold on to,” she said.