Earlier this week, some Florida high school and college students, many of them LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender), went to Tallahassee to make the case for the "Jeffrey Johnston Stand Up For All Students Act," which takes aim at harassing and bullying behaviors in the state's schools. One had a particularly illuminating experience that illustrates why Florida needs a real anti-bullying law, one which goes beyond the Johnston bill to provide protections for those who need it most.
That student was Jessica Osborn, who attends the University of Central Florida and who got to meet with her Representative, Alan Hays. "After telling him [Hays] my story he proceeded to say he was repulsed by homosexuals, and we needed extensive psychological treatment," said Jessica. Hays confirmed Tuesday that he met with the students, but said he couldn't recall saying he was "repulsed" by homosexuals. "But I did tell them that they needed some psychological treatment." Thanks Al: that clarification probably helps Jessica feel a little less repulsive to you. Not much, but a little, and I guess every little bit counts.
The "Jeffrey Johnston Stand Up For All Students Act" defines "sexual, religious or racial harassment" as bullying, but makes no mention of sexual orientation. According to the SW Florida News-Press, the bill's sponsor, Rep. Nick Thompson, said that there was no need for inclusion of specific protections for LGBT students because the bill is broad enough to cover all forms of harassment.
No need for specific protections? Rep. Thompson, meet Rep. Hays - exhibit #1 in why such protections need to be specific and crystal clear.
Bullying based on sexual orientation is at the very heart of the crisis that prompted the Johnston bill. A 2005 Harris study for GLSEN (the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network) found that the most common reasons students were bullied in Florida's junior high and high schools were physical appearance (36%) and real or perceived sexual orientation (28%). Coming in far behind were race (12%) and religion (0%: that's right, zero). A bill that professes to do something about bullying while not addressing those who are bullying's most frequent victims is at best ineffective and at worse negligent.
Studies show that we only make real progress on bullying when our policies are as specific and clear as possible. For example, Harris found that students in schools without comprehensive anti-bullying policies (those lacking enumerated classes like race, religion, and sexual orientation) were 1/3 more likely to report that bullying and harassment were serious problems at their schools. In Florida, Harris found that teachers in districts with comprehensive anti-bullying policies were nearly twice as likely to intervene when anti-LGBT incidents occurred. Teachers told Harris that what they most needed to address bullying and harassment successfully was a clear policy. Schools need to set firm standards for appropriate behavior and, when their policies are specific and clear, they get results.
So why doesn't the Johnston bill do this? I think it is because folks like Rep. Hays have misunderstood the role and purpose of school policies is. Policies tell people how to behave, not what to believe. Folks like Rep. Hays are constitutionally entitled to think that gays are repulsive (it's called the First Amendment). But they are not entitled to carry these personal beliefs into a school setting and create a climate where bullying and harassing behaviors make it impossible for those who do not share their beliefs to learn. Public schools need to be safe places where every child has an equal chance to get an education. We can't tolerate behaviors that interfere with that right. And we'll keep getting those behaviors unless we specifically tell students that they aren't OK.
As one of my coaches once said, "If you keep doing what you're doing, you'll keep getting what you're getting." Clearly what we're doing in schools right now isn't working or we wouldn't have such high rates of harassment and bullying behaviors towards LGBT students. If we pass another policy that doesn't address that specifically, those students will keep getting what they're getting - school days filled with name-calling, bullying, and harassment. And that should shame even Rep. Hays into behaving better.