Since July, an alarming number of LGBT teens and college students have committed suicide. From Tyler Clementi, 18, a Rutgers University freshman, to the most recent to make headlines, 19-year-old former Howard University student Aiyisha Hassan. The suicides, in particular Clementi’s, have brought attention to how endemic bulling is in adolescent culture, from physical assault to Internet harassment. It doesn’t end with overt hostility, however. A 2009 survey by GLSEN, which advocates for safe space in schools for LGBT students, found that, “88.9% of students heard ‘gay’ used in a negative way (e.g., ‘that’s so gay’) frequently or often at school.” Even more troubling is the fact that “40.1% of students were physically harassed” and “18.8% were physically assaulted.”
But the GLSEN survey also discovered that bullying is not confined to LGBT students. Nearly three quarters of students, 72.1 percent, heard sexist remarks “frequently or often” and 40.6 percent heard racist remarks “frequently or often.”
The recent torrent of bad news about LGBT youth harassment in particular has prompted many to ask, what can we do to help? Broader, more inclusive strategies to combat bullying need to be enacted to ensure that all students, regardless of gender identity, sexual orientation, race or disability status, are made to feel safe and welcome in their schools.
The Make It Better Project provides an excellent collection of resources to directly empower youth to act to stop bullying of all types, including a how-to guide on interrupting bullying when you see it happening. It also offers a resource list for parents on how they can support teens and prevent bullying. As one LGBT teen says in one of the project’s video testimonials, “I tried and succeeded at making it better for myself. I didn’t just wait and hope that it would get better. I found a whole world of people and places and experiences that I never thought that I would have.” That’s what activism can do. So we asked other anti-bullying advocates to chime in with their own strategies for ensuring a better school climate for all students. Here are five solutions we found at work in schools across the country. There are many, many more. If you’ve got any to highlight, chime into the comments below.
Gay/Straight Alliances are student-run organizations that began in 1998 when a straight student reached out to GLSEN-founder Kevin Jennings. Today there are more than 4,000 clubs in all 50 states, Puerto Rico and on U.S. military bases. They provide LGBT students a non-judgmental space and support straight allies. State-based coalitions such as the GSA Network, work to spread the clubs in both rural and urban public schools where they are harder to establish. This past year, the coalition worked with a small group of middle school students at Tomas Rivera Middle School in rural Perris, Calif. Their group is now thriving and is working with the network to “train and empower students in isolated places.” (Photo by Caitlin Childs)
Acceptance as Core Curriculum
The Alliance School opened in Milwaukee in 2005 as a small public charter school in grades 6-12. The school is built “with the goal of providing a safe and accepting environment for all students.” It emphasizes, as leader-teacher Tina Owen says, “building compassion and teaching acceptance for all people” through “preventative practice so that we are addressing unkind deeds and words before they become bullying.” Students participate directly in creating school policies, through student government organizations. Harassment forms are always available. And the school works toward fulfilling the principle that “no one ever says ‘we can’t do anything about that.’ ” (Photo by Ryan Stanton)
Make It Comprehensive
The Olweus Bullying Prevention Program also starts with a comprehensive school reform. It has since been used in both urban and rural public schools, across the country and internationally. As Marlene Synder, research associate at the affiliated Clemson University, says, “It is a system-change, requiring the long-term commitment of all members of the school system.” It emphasizes a student-driven approach, building on a student survey that allows a school to understand its specific bullying concerns. The program emphasizes staff training because so much of the focus is on anti-bullying curriculum, including role-playing exercises and active parental involvement. (Photo by Eddie~S)
Teaching Through Film
GroundSpark is an organization that was founded in 1978 as Women’s Educational Media. The new name reflects a broader commitment “of creating visionary films and dynamic educational campaigns that move individuals and communities to take action for a more just world.” One of these campaigns is the Respect for All Project, which offers a series of award-winning films for students ranging from grades K-12, as well as teachers, parents and youth-service providers. All films include a curriculum guide for understanding differences—including ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation—into the day-to-day classroom setting. GroundSpark also runs “Professional Development Workshops” that have educated over 10,000 individuals since 2003, addressing how to use films as educational tools and how to adapt these to a wide variety of settings, from urban to rural and public to private.
Start Early—and Help Kids to Stand Up For Themselves
True Colors is a Connecticut non-profit that is committed to “full equality for all LGBT youth, adults and families” and “to the work of social justice as an anti-racist institution.” The organization provides a number of important resources for LGBT youth across the state that include working directly with Gay/Straight Alliances to facilitate “summits” to build connections within communities. Executive Director Robin McHaelen says the organization is focused particularly on developing middle school Gay/Straight Alliances, given the fact that the “average age of coming out today is 11 to 13.” True Colors also implemented the “Youth Activist Institute,” a six-week training program that enables youth to “advocate for themselves and others” in response to all forms of harassment. Listen to the young people talk for themselves on CNN in the video below.