October was National Bullying Prevention Month, an annual campaign started in 2006 to illuminate the problem in schools and enhance prevention efforts. Many school systems instituted policies and provided programming for students. However, we still have a ways to go in zero tolerance in schools for bullying.
The American Psychological Association defines bullying as aggressive, repeated and intentional behavior designed to show an imbalance of power. One out of three students is bullied during the school year, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics.
There are three types of bullying: verbal, social and physical. Verbal is one of the most commonly used forms of bullying. For example, it is common to hear the following daily in our K-12 hallways throughout the country.
"Hey, sissy boy, what are you afraid of?"
"Yo, girl, you are too fat; you'd be prettier if you lost weight."
"Are you sure you are a girl?"
"You better watch it, I am going to destroy you."
"She's a slut; she sleeps with all the guys."
"Watch it with him, I caught him looking at me in the showers."
"That's so gay."
"That's so gay" is heard multiple times a day. In the 2011 Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network's (GLSEN) annual school climate survey, over 70 percent of students reported often hearing homophobic slurs in school and almost 85 percent said they heard gay used in a pejorative manner.
A 2012 University of Michigan study demonstrated that hearing "that's so gay" causes serious emotional and physical affects to adolescents such as isolation, depression, low self-worth, headaches, and other medical symptoms.
Many teachers say they feel powerless in dealing with bullying in their classrooms, particularly with all of the other demands placed on them. I also know teachers want to be helpful and do not want children to hurt.
Talk to any teacher and most will identify their desire to make a difference in the lives of children as a primary motivator for their choice of vocation. They love children and want to be allies to children.
Verbal bullying is one aspect of bullying for which teachers can provide role modeling. However, there are many teachers who are LGBTQ Allies and avoid confronting sexual orientation and gender verbal abuse in their classroom.
It is imperative for teachers to be a voice for those who cannot defend themselves.
Here are three tips for teachers and administrators to use as they battle specifically LGBTQ verbal bullying.
1. Come out as an Ally.
It may be difficult for teachers to come out as an Ally, perhaps due to personal belief systems or fear of administration. And these are real fears. However, it is more important that a teacher challenge themselves to be an Ally in the classroom for all students, than to perpetuate not confronting issues that merit it. One way to come out oneself as an Ally is to have an LGBTQ symbol in your classroom such as a rainbow or equality sign. Students are watching to see a teacher's actions and words, thus teachers have an opportunity to share information that the kids do not receive anywhere else about LGBTQ teenagers and people. In particular, sexual minority students are listening to see if a teacher is creating a safe space for them.
2. Use affirming language in the classroom.
I use the word affirming here quite intentionally. Most commonly we hear "I am a tolerant person; I accept gay people." Let's twist this for a second. What might it be like for someone to tell a heterosexually identified person that they are tolerant of straight people? Or that they accept them despite their heterosexuality? Affirmation indicates that a person's contribution is worthwhile for the WHOLE person and does not require 'acceptance.'
3. Ban "that's so gay" in your classroom.
It's time to ban this phrase. Teachers can encourage students to choose another adjective that truly describes what they are trying to express. They can encourage children to not use slurs such as this in the classroom and against others, demonstrating to them that they are trying to use power over another group. Teachers can show videos from the GLSEN thinkb4youspeak campaign, which have celebrities challenging "that's so gay" and can potentially, reach adolescents at a higher rate.
Imagine if every teacher banned this phrase, emphatically, in their classrooms. It would be revolution in verbal bullying and I believe we can achieve this. Soon.
We need teachers, administrators and other school leaders to step up and be role models for all students and other professionals on campus. Not man up or woman up! Person up!