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Make it better in schools right now

By Frank Murphy on Oct 26, 2010 11:41 AM

“I’m afraid my whole life is going to be like this. People will always be calling me names.” -Jordan, 8th grader, in Confessions of an Urban Principal: October

Asher Brown recently committed suicide. He was 13 years old. He shot himself in the head with his stepfather’s gun. According to media reports, he was relentlessly bullied and tormented by other students in his school. Earlier in the day on which he died, he had told his parents that he was gay.

As I read and followed the numerous media reports related to this recent rash of youthful suicides, I couldn’t help but note the lack of response on the part of educators. 

Who more than anyone else can have a powerful impact on the daily quality of life children will enjoy? Research has indicated that whole school interventions can be very effective in addressing the problem of bullying. This is a systemic problem that can only be modified by addressing the entire school culture. This task cannot be accomplished solely through the acts of gay adults and student activists. Creating a safe and welcoming school community is primarily the responsibility of the teachers, principals, and paraprofessionals who staff any school.

According to media reports, the teachers and administrators in Asher Brown’s school did nothing to help this young boy as he struggled to free himself of the torment that plagued him. They stated that they had no knowledge nor had they received any complaints in regards to Asher being bullied.

I don’t understand how the adults in his school could not know that Asher was being bullied.

When I was a classroom teacher, it was my business to be aware of my students' interactions. Developing an understanding of the personality of each child in my classroom was essential information to me. I made it a point to pay attention when a particular child’s behavior was out of the ordinary. It was actually hard not to notice when a child’s gender expressions didn’t match with societal norms. I noted children’s behavior not so I could judge them, but so that I could help them. It was my job to protect the children of my classroom from being bullied.

Asher is one of several young people who have recently taken their own lives after suffering continuous harassment regarding their sexual orientation or gender expression. These tragic losses have sparked a strong response in the adult gay community.

One of the more publicized reactions is Dan Savage’s, It Gets Better Project. The participants in this Internet-based outreach effort provide frank and touching descriptions of their own stories of being bullied and tormented in middle and high school. They also recount the happiness and sense of belonging that they have found as adults. The consistent message communicated to young gay teens is that after high school life will get better. The willingness of these positive adult role models to come forward and speak up in this manner strongly speaks to LGBT youth that they are not alone and they are members of a larger community.

LGBT teens have taken the message of their elders a step further by organizing their own Make It Better Project. They want their lives to be better now; waiting until after high school feels unreasonable to them. It is a long time to wait, considering that many more young people are realizing that they are gay and are considering coming out at earlier ages

The Make it Better Project focuses on directing youthful energy and idealism into acts of self empowerment such as joining or organizing gay straight alliances, telling one’s own stories on YouTube, and lobbying elected officials to support the Safe Schools Improvement Act and the Student Nondiscrimination Act.

The urgency to act on making school life better for young people victimized by homophobic behavior is also felt by many straight students who recognize how wrong this kind of discrimination is. This awareness is reflected in this perceptive post that describes one student’s disgust at gay-bashing. The participation of many students in national events such as the annual Day of Silence is another signal of growing student discontent with school environments that are hostile and hateful towards gay students.

My responsibility to help protect LGBT students was magnified when I became a principal. Yet with many more children to care for, I still knew when a child was having a particularly hard time, either academically or socially. I made sure that I was aware of what was going on in the school.  Students, teachers, custodial staff, volunteers, and parents alike talked with me all of the time about issues and concerns.  I used the information I gathered from these conversations to make decisions about how to shape and influence the school’s climate. Principals are the people who can have the greatest influence in creating a welcoming school.

Children learn best when they feel that they belong to a positive, concerned, and caring community.  Bullying, teasing, and harassment are serious obstacles that can impede our efforts to teach our children well.

Teachers and principals can make life better for every child in our schools right now. We can do so by making sure bullies aren't able to intimidate or isolate any person. Equally important, each of us adults must also respect and accept each child for the person that she or he is.

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Comments (10)

Submitted by Erika Owens (not verified) on October 26, 2010 3:00 pm

Frank, thank you for writing about this. I hadn't heard about the Make it Better Project till I read your post. What a great idea! It's great to see students taking leadership on this issue. My sister was only four years behind me in school, but by the time she got to high school her friends started a GSA and she was a proud (and loud, other than on that day) Day of Silence participant.

It's great to highlight ways all of us can get involved while reiterating where leadership and action should be coming from.

Submitted by Meg (not verified) on October 27, 2010 7:49 am

I agree with you, Erika. We need more support from the top. Our children need us to have the power to protect them.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 26, 2010 6:47 pm

Thank you, Frank, for bringing attention to this. Interestingly, there are few comments re: your editorial as well.
I am a gay 38-year-old teacher and DO stick up for those children who get bullied for ANY reason because I KNOW - after years of torment - the pain of being bullied. And yet, because of all those years of being bullied, I still get afraid when sticking up for gay rights.
This poor kid, Asher - the story brought tears to my eyes.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 26, 2010 10:07 pm

Thanks for bringing this issue to this blog Frank. As your title suggests, "it gets better" is not enough. We need to "fix it now". Desparate children who feel they have no choice, don't think about tomorrow, they just want to get out of today. In 2010, we shouldn't have to be telling any child...wait it gets better.

Building a caring, responsible community in a school is everyone's business.

Submitted by Meg (not verified) on October 27, 2010 7:55 am

I also share the frustration. My niece started high school last September and ran into her first bully. Being a very tall white child in a very racially mixed school. she stuck out drastically. When her tendency to connect quickly with adults came through, it aggravated a bad situation. The main bully picked on her all year. The staff of that school ignored most of the issues. She got things thrown at her almost daily. She was called names and targeted frequently. These incidences included the nurse several times. The school staff did not react until he threatened her with a gun (verbally mind you. He did not bring a weapon to school). This got him the first suspension. The parents were called together and had a meeting with one counselor - no one "official" from the school. A police report was filed and the two children were sent back to their classes. The buy was actually told to play nice. This was mid-morning and he had several classes left to go with my niece. Her mother signed her out. She missed the next day from school, because of the nightmares she had all night.
The school's teachers were supportive, but had no place to go. They were ignored when they called and asked for him to be removed. They moved my niece closer to them, but that honestly aggravated the issue. The school never supported her.
Bullies need to be dealt with quickly and strongly. They cannot be ignored. Yet, this system does not support attempts by teachers to help those being bullied. This needs to change.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 27, 2010 9:08 pm

The district is run by a bunch of cowards who will talk the talk, but wimp out every time when it comes to laying down the law to troublemakers. It's easier to blame the victim as they did down at South Philly High.

Submitted by Meg (not verified) on October 28, 2010 2:20 pm

They blame the victim and even try moving the victim. I will never understand the logic of that. The victim should be protected and allowed to stay in the schedule theya re comfortable with, if that is their choice.

Submitted by In the Trenches (not verified) on October 28, 2010 2:21 pm

I teach at a site where a seven year old flipped out yesterday. Throwing chairs, full baskets of books and causing other damage to the room was not enough - he went after the teacher, creating welts on her arms with his finger nails that almost drew blood, hitting and kicking her, all over an "in between" behavior grade. This was at dismissal. Checking the child's record now show an IEP for emotional support, something we were unaware of as the receiving school.
This is bullying and he has a history of it. Yet, it took a computer search to identify the needs - no hard copies of anything followed the child.
Our school communities and sites need the protection of complete information and the teachers need the power to stop a bully. In this case, that identification should have popped up instantly as he was enrolled. He does not belong in our setting. It will be interesting to see what happens after his three day suspension.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 11, 2011 11:40 am

I am suffering the same problem where I work. The problem is so bad that when the child who is being bullied comes to me for help now I have become the victim of the bullies . They have gotten so comfortable slapping my student and pulling her hair and calling her bitch and nothing happens. Now every time she comes to tell me I too become the victim of the bullies. Now they tell me they are going to kick my ass and I am called bitch so much you would think it is my given name.
It is a team of two who have been allowed to bully threaten and harrass my self and others. No one wants to do anything because they are mentally challenged. I was sexually assualted in the girls bathroom by another mentallly challenged student and notlhings happened because we were both females and she is special. I am at my wits ends.

Submitted by Meg (not verified) on February 11, 2011 12:27 pm

I share your pain. we have several bullies all of a sudden and have tracked all of the behaviors back to beginning with one child. This kid got away with it, now there are several. The misbehaviors spread. So wish I could have convinced the new administration of this probability earlier.
My best advice to you is DOCUMENT. record what happens, who you tell and any reactions that do happen. You mwy need this information if you ever decide to go outside the system.

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