School Bullying: Denial Is Not An Effective Way To Help Students

12/24/2010 11:53 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The suicides of boys tormented by anti-gay harassment grabbed the public's attention this fall. Those suicides are the tip of the iceberg.

For every tragic and unnecessary case that makes it to the news, there are others we don't hear about. These are the ones that families are too ashamed to disclose. Then there are scores of suicide attempts that leave parents desperately trying to convince schools to do the right thing.

That is terribly hard to do. Too many school and district administrators go into denial. They insist there is no problem, that their existing programs are enough, that they couldn't possibly have known, that there's no substantiation and that their hands are tied.

I heard about one of those suicide attempts a week ago, when an adult ally of the high school youth reached out to Teaching Tolerance for help. This boy, like many we've read about, had a supportive family, but went to a school where too many people in leadership positions want to believe that either they don't have any gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) students or that their current general anti-bullying program is enough.

At the request of the family, I called the local superintendent after the principal suggested to the ally that the student in question brought it upon himself by his "gay" behavior, such as the time he dyed his hair pink.

As U.S. Department of Education spokesperson James Hamilton explains, "Harassing someone for failing to conform to gender norms is sexual harassment." When the principal is the cheerleader for those gender norms and explains that a gay student's pink hair brought the bullying on, it's not a good sign.

I offered the superintendent support and assistance, and suggested some ways the district could be more LGBT-friendly. Our conversation included a gentle reminder of the district's responsibility to investigate the bullying, to take steps to end it and to prevent it from happening again. Echoing the recent Department of Education's "Letter to Colleagues," I explained that the school needed to perform due diligence to ensure the boy's safety and eliminate any hostile environment.

Was my message heard? In this case, the superintendent asked what "LGBT" meant and confessed she had never heard of Gay-Straight Alliances (needless to say, the high school does not have one). She believed that the nationally known bullying program the district is in the course of adopting, a program designed for students in grades 3-10, provided all the answers she needed.

I chose to be diplomatic and supportive, because I believe any other stance had no chance of being heard. But I fear that she will join the ranks of too many other superintendents who have buried their heads securely in the sand, hoping that the worst doesn't happen.

Tragically, the worst does happen, too often. Here's what I really want that superintendent to know lies ahead if she doesn't take steps immediately to protect the students in her district who don't fit gender norms.

She should take note of Anoka-Hennepin, Minn. Within one year, at least seven students in that district killed themselves, and several of the deaths have been related to peer harassment. Tammy Aaberg, the mother of one victim who was gay, has begged the board and district to investigate and adopt a positive program to protect LGBT and other students. The superintendent says the district has investigated. But no investigator has interviewed at least some victims' families, and the district has discounted student accounts. In the end, the superintendent issued a statement that is a model of categorical denial: "None of the suicides," he insists, "were connected to incidents of bullying or harassment."

In California, 13-year old Seth Walsh took days to die after hanging himself from a tree in his family's backyard. Earlier, when Wendy Walsh confronted her son's principal with the seriousness of the harassment, the administrator solved the problem by enrolling Seth in the district's Home School-Based Independent Study Program. Rather than confront the hostile environment and address the underlying problem, he simply exiled the victim.

Wendy took her son's case to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). They produced a heart-wrenching YouTube video in which she reads her son's suicide note describing how the school abandoned him. The ACLU has also sent a letter to the district demanding a specific action plan, usually the first step before a lawsuit. In addition, the federal Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights has launched an investigation.

Madame superintendent, that is what lies ahead for your district if you fail to take a hard look at the climate in your schools and acknowledge the basic right of every student to be safe, welcome and valued. It starts with knowing there's a problem. There's still time to do the right thing.