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“Students are dying. They want us to help them.”

January 20, 2011

Suicide is the third leading cause for people ages 15 to 24 in the United States. Thirty percent of teen suicides are committed by LGBTQ teens (That’s three times as many as by straight teens). More often than not, these suicides are the result of bullying. When you consider that 86% of gay and lesbian students report being bullied; 66% of  bullying victims polled believe that professionals–teachers, school administration and school counselors–responded poorly and only 10 – 20% of bystanders witnessing bullying incidents take action to stop the bullying, it’s easy to see we have a crisis on our hands.

These numbers were projected on the screen before the showing of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s documentary, Bullied: A Student, a School and a Case That Made History, sonsored by the GVSU College of Education at GVSU Loosemore Auditorium Tuesday evening. The film put a face on these numbers.  When he was five years old, Jamie Nabozny told his grandmother that he was a “homosexual,” a word he could barely pronounce. At age seven, he came out to his mom. His was a loving, supportive two-parent (heterosexual) family.

When Jamie entered Ashland Junior High School as a seventh grader, the bullying began. Every day when he went to school, he faced unrelenting verbal taunts and mild physical abuse: shoving, his books and papers thrown around, being pushed up against the lockers.

After one particularly tough day, he attempted suicide by taking a bottle full of pills and ended up in the emergency room. His parents went to the school to ask them to help stop the bullying. The junior high principal’s response, “Boys will be boys.”

Jamie Nabozny during his high school years

In high school, the bullying escalated. He tried to hide from his tormentors, but wasn’t always successful. He endured physical violence regularly, to the point that he was hospitalized and had to have surgery after one particularly violent beating. Again, his parents went to the school principal. His attackers were let off without even a verbal reprimand. The high school principal’s response, “That’s what happens when you hit on the hockey team.” (Jamie did not “hit on” his fellow students.)

Jamie ran away and landed at a teen shelter in Minneapolis. A legal advisor there suggested that he and his parents sue the school district. They did and they won. The landmark case has set a precedent and served as a warning to schools across the nation that not keeping LGBTQ students safe from bullying can be very expensive. (Jamie won $900,000.)

After the film, WGVU’s Shelley Irwin moderated a panel of four experts. Her first question, was the film relevant? Denise Brogan-Kator, interim executive director of Equality Michigan, said the film’s message was particularly relevant in Michigan as we are one of only five states that does not have laws against bullying. Seems our legislators are afraid to include language that refers to LGBTQ youth. “We are going to hurt kids because we aren’t going to protect the queers. That just makes me nuts,” Brogan-Kator said. “Bullying is bad, period. Everybody should be safe. But if you include everybody without naming them, you include and protect no one. LGBTQ youth are the principal target of bullying in today’s schools. Studies have shown that the number one target are students who are gay or perceived to be gay. If you break the gender norms, you are a target. These kids are dying. Is it relevant? My god, is it relevant.”

Michele Coyne, a consultant to schools on bullying prevention, added that kid bullies become adult bullies, child abusers and perpetrators of domestic violence.  “60% of kids who are considered bullies in grades six through nine  will have a conviction by age 24. This is not a surprise,” she said. “It’s not only the victim who is hurt. The bullies and the bystanders don’t fare much better.

She has witnessed bullies harassing classmates they perceive as gay as early as third grade. “Kids with sexual minority parents, they are also considered to be targets.”

Kay Waters, a Grand Rapids school counselor noted that while bullying issues are being addressed, schools still have a long ways to go.  “Educators need to have that open ear, be sensitive and model respect for all students. (We need to do) more than identify the problem, we have to continue to work together to find answers.”

Sue Verduin-Miller, a Grand Rapids school social worker, agreed. “It takes courage at times. It’s very easy for adults who are bothered to become bystanders who are quiet. If a person is aware of harassment and they are afraid to speak up, chances are there are a lot of other people nearby who are afraid to speak up.  Acceptance of bullying depends on silence and isolation.”

When dealing with bullies, school staff needs to provide ongoing follow-up. Taking action only once or twice creates a situation where the bullies want to reassert themselves. “We need comprehensive school programs. There are good ones out there but most schools aren’t bothering to implement them,” Coyne  said. “When we start hearing words being coined like ‘bullicide,’ it’s time.”

Equality Michigan offers school administrators and teachers free training in how to create safe schools. Its curriculum is youth approved by Michigan’s legislature. “We will come into your schools and educate you on how to implement programs,” she said.

Irwin asked what the parents’ role is. Waters replied that even when parents want to do their best for their kids, they are hampered because they don’t know what their rights are. Even so, parents remain their children’s best advocate. Verduin-Miller added that schools often do not follow-up when a parent does bring up issues.

Parents often are not aware their child is being bullied. They may shrug off a child’s complaints as being normal conflicts all kids face growing up. VerDuin-Miller stressed the importance of really listening to what children are saying and finding support if bullying is suspected.

Indicators of bullying include faking illness to get out of school, bedwetting or odd behavior like making up reasons to go in a certain school door. “Parents are hungry for information and not just the parents of victims, but parents of bystanders, too,” Coyne said. “They give a kid courage and moral fortitude to step in and help someone else. Teach your kids that it’s just not acceptable to pick on people. Help your children develop strong self esteem and self worth so A) they don’t bully and B) they step in.”

While it would have been even more enlightening had the panel included a college student who had experienced bullying during high school, overall, the four went a long ways in presenting important information to the audience, which included many education majors. They also shared these resources: Schools Where Everyone Belongs: Practical Strategies for Reducing Bullying by Stan Davis; Nobody Left to Hate: Teaching Compassion after Columbine by Elliot Aronson; A Silent Crisis: Creating Safe Schools for Sexual Minority Youth; and the Web site

“The young people whose lives are no longer in existence because they took a bottle of pills or tied a rope around their necks, those young people are lost from us forever,” Brogan-Kator   said. “What do we do about that? We be aware. We take Jamie’s lesson into the world with us. You can’t back down when somebody tells you ‘Don’t worry about it.’ These are kids’ lives.”

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Parent of FHCHS Student permalink
    January 23, 2011 1:31 pm

    They could really use an on going anti-bullying educational program at Forest Hills Central Middle and High Schools. There are quite a few out of control bullies at these schools. They claim to have a strong anti-bullying policy, but it really has no teeth. They are doing nothing to educate the students in an ongoing way. Raising a kind and compassionate child is not really that difficult. When the parents fail to do that it is unfortunately the school systems that need to address it. This school system has great academics, but they fall very short when it comes to promoting any kind of moral focus.

  2. stelle permalink
    January 25, 2011 2:17 am

    Perhaps we could do a follow up post on the situation at FHS. Are there any parents, victims or bystanders who would anonymously provide information on their experiences?

  3. Parent of FHCHS student permalink
    January 25, 2011 3:08 am

    Well, I can think of a few people who would most likely be willing to share their stories anonymously, of course. There are a lot of bystanders that are probably a bit nervous about getting involved. However, when my child comes to me and says that thoughts of suicide has entered his mind at times, I take notice and action. I think bystanders will be empowered by any type of publicity this type of situation gets, especially if it is their school. Most seem to be nervous and perhaps confused about whose side to be on when it comes to things like this. But if this type of thing can make some type of movement we are all in!

  4. Parent of FHCHS student permalink
    January 25, 2011 3:39 am

    I also think some type of mass mailer to parents in the school district asking them to share their story might help if they knew it would be anonymous. There are a lot more victims out there. I would be most willing to absorb the cost of the mailing. I have the new and old student directories that have addresses of parents.

    Anonymity is the key here for the parents, I would be willing to call and talk to a few and have them over for coffee. Most parents know that their own involvement leads to serious backlash on the student. And word often gets out. There are not that many kids that do the fast 50 for just that reason.

    Ok- let me know what you think!

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