BY AJ TRAGER
Bullying: “Bullying” or “harassment” is any gesture or written, verbal, graphic or physical act (including electronically transmitted acts – i.e., cyberbullying, through the use of internet, cell phone, personal digital assistant, computer or wireless handheld device, currently in use or later developed and used by students) that is reasonably perceived as being dehumanizing, intimidating, hostile, humiliating, threatening or otherwise likely to evoke fear of physical harm or emotional distress and may be motivated either by bias or prejudice based upon any actual or perceived characteristic, such as race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression; or a mental, physical or sensory disability or impairment; or by any other distinguishing characteristic, or is based upon association with another person who has or is perceived to have any distinguishing characteristic.
School-based bullying and harassment are very real problems affecting the nation’s youth and school districts. State legislatures and state educational agencies play vital roles in ensuring safe and supportive learning environments for all students.
But are the Michigan laws and policies that are currently in place actually working to protect LGBT youth against bullying and harassment?
Schools are by and large heteronormative and cisnormative. Even though the LGBT community accounts for less than 8 percent of the national population, younger generations are introduced to LGBT identities at higher rates than older generations due to social media and the growing acceptance of the LGBT community. The majority of Americans that support LGBT identities now exceeds 50 percent of the population.
In spite of growing acceptance, the statistics for LGBT youth are staggering. Forty percent of homeless youth identify as LGBT. LGB youth are four times as likely and trans youth are nine times as likely to have attempted suicide compared to their non-LGBT peers. GLSEN, an organization that has led national efforts to create safer schools by advocating for the development, adoption and implementation of comprehensive anti-bullying policies for the last 25 years, has reported that nine trans youth have already committed suicide this year.
In the first major vote on LGBT equality since the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage decision June 26, the U.S. Senate recently failed to pass the Student Non-Discrimination Act. If passed, the bill would have prohibited public schools from discriminating against any student on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. It was modeled after Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.
Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., offered SNDA as an amendment to the Every Child Achieves Act, which would update federal education law; however, the amendment failed on a vote of 52-45, across party lines.
Currently, federal statutory protections address discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex and disability, but federal civil rights laws do not expressly protect students from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Neither does current Michigan law.
History demonstrates that civil rights laws are effective in decreasing discrimination because they provide strong federal remedies targeted to specific vulnerable groups.
A recent report by GLSEN, titled “From Statehouse To Schoolhouse: Anti-bullying Policy Efforts in U.S. States and School Districts,” found that nearly 30 percent of U.S. school districts in the country did not have an anti-bullying policy. Of the 70 percent that do provide policies, only 14 percent had enumerated protections for students based upon sexual orientation and gender identity. A quarter required professional development for staff in addressing bullying and harassment in their schools. Less than one-third stipulated accountability for incidents of bullying and harassment to the district and/or state. In all, only 3 percent of district policies included LGBT enumerated rights, professional development requirements and accountability stipulations as an approach.
Accounting for all school districts, the GLSEN report found only one in 10 had enumerated rights for sexual orientation and gender identity/expression (Sexual orientation and gender identity); three in 10 have enumerated rights for sexual orientation but not gender identity; two in 10 required professional development for staff and accountability for bullying incidents; and only a staggering 2 percent were providing anti-bullying policies that included all examined elements.
Michigan’s “Matt’s Safe School Law,” as it is now known, was introduced in May 2001 in the state Senate. It was named after Matt Epling, a student who committed suicide following years of bullying and harassment. The first draft of the bill was fairly comprehensive and was the first iteration of the law that enumerated sexual orientation but not gender identity. In 2006 sexual orientation was added to a later version of the bill, but was thrown out in the final version.
“The Michigan Legislature has been firmly in the hands of Republican control since the Matt’s Safe School Law was introduced in 2001. The only time the Dems had the house was for two sessions in 2007 and 2009, which was the first time that the law got any traction at all,” said Thomas Zook, Wayne State University College of Education doctoral student who studied the state Safe Schools Law and who’s dissertation will include Transformative Leadership Theory and how it relates to LGBT youth bullying and harassment.
“The law never became an enumerated bill,” Zook said. “Specifically speaking about sexual orientation and gender identity, there was a state Representative who, in a thinly veiled attempt to hide their homophobia, said that enumeration was unnecessary and should be left up to the local governments and agencies.”
Eleven iterations of the bill came. Then, in 2011, the state Senate introduced SB137 which was later called the “License To Bully Law” by opponents of the legislation. Legislators slapped on a last minute amendment which allowed for children, parents and teachers to disparage LGBT kids if their motivation was from “deeply held religious beliefs.” The Senate later passed the generic bill without religious freedom protections following a firestorm of protest from Michigan communities and families. Michigan became the 48th state to pass an anti-bully law.
“Given the devastating and often tragic consequences of bullying in our schools, and in recognition that a safe and secure climate for learning can and must be created in every Michigan school – the State Board of Education has, on a bi-partisan basis since 2000, asked Michigan schools to adopt and implement an effective, research-informed model anti-bullying policy and practice,” State Board of Education Superintendent Michael P. Flanagan wrote in a statement dated November 2011, directly preceding Gov. Snyder’s signing of Matt’s Safe School Law.
Kim Kovalchick, program supervisor for coordinated school health and safety programs at the Michigan Department of Education, has been with the state’s office for 13 years, working specifically on policy work around school health and adolescent behavior.
“We have our State Board of Education policy on bullying. It’s not state law, but it makes a statement. We don’t have the power of law to dictate to the districts what they have to do,” Kovalchick said.
The Michigan Department of Education can suggest to school districts that they adopt fully inclusive anti-bully policies; however, the decision is ultimately up to the districts on which policies they adopt.
In his review of three major Metro Detroit school districts, Zook found that only one of 22 Macomb County school districts included enumerated sexual orientation/gender identity rights for students, with five out of 28 in Oakland County and six out of 33 in Wayne County.
In just those three counties, 14.6 percent enumerated sexual orientation/gender identity protections despite the fact that the Board of Education provides a comprehensive state policy for anti-bullying and harassment.
“Violence against me prevented me from being me for many years. Kids today realize that there is a hope for them to have a life, but in order to live a life of who they are, they have to have one. They deserve the right to safe and supportive environments,” Zook said. “And sadly you’ve got 10 kids that committed suicide due to bullying during the time this law was being debated, and that just isn’t right. We can’t play with kids lives.”
According to the 2009 National School Climate Survey published by the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network: 84 percent of LGBT students reported being verbally harassed, 40 percent reported being physically harassed and 18 percent reported being physically assaulted at school in the past year because of their sexual orientation. Nearly two-thirds of students reported that they felt unsafe in school because of their sexual orientation and more than a third felt unsafe because of their gender expression.
Fenton High School theater teacher Lori Thompson started working on The Bullycide Project eight years ago after editing a play on bullying and school violence. A Fenton High parent who had lost a child to bullying introduced Thompson to Brenda High’s “Bullycide In America: Mom’s Speak Out About the Bullying/Suicide Connection.” After reading one personal story after another, Thompson knew that it would make a good traveling theater performance. She arranged to meet with the mothers, family and friends of the individuals whose stories were told in the book. They showed her poetry, artwork, clothes and even some bedrooms of the youth who had lost their lives to bullying.
Since then she has worked with students and graduated thespians on a nine-piece theater show titled “The Bullycide Project,” which showcases real-life experiences of youth enduring bullying and harassment. Thompson has even granted the opportunity to some actors to perform their own stories, including Fenton High School graduate Nick Swatz, who has shared his story about being bullied in high school for being gay with thousands of captive audiences. The Trust Theater Ensemble has performed the Bullycide Project in over 100 locations and two countries.
“At my school, being the teacher I am and with my involvement with the bullycide project, I have had more students open up to me over the past few years about what is going on in the hallways and what is going on with them personally. Just this last year I have had students open up about self harm and depression,” Thompson said. “Teachers and the administration are always focused on standardized testing, but we are losing kids because we are not taking the time to make them feel human and to show that we are human too.”
Thompson reports that Fenton High adopted a system over a decade ago to prevent further bullying in the hallways, and the school administration is focused on eliminating bullying and harassment on campus. If she witnesses an instance of bullying, Thompson will report it to administration, cohorts and even parents.
“We need to have a support system behind that young person. They’re already feeling like an outcast. That is not right. We need them to know that they aren’t alone,” Thompson said. “As teachers, it is part of our job to not just be the curriculum teacher but we also need to start taking 15 minutes, two times a week, and address how kids are doing. We need to listen. They’re bringing more and more into the classroom than just their backpacks.”
Statewide Policy Change
“Even if you aren’t the kid being bullied, it is impacting all the students because of the climate,” Kovalchick said. “We have a variety of resources to encourage schools to make these safe environments that are inclusive and a place where students want to be.”
The State Department of Education has provided professional development training for teachers for the last 15 years. Kovalchick reports that, even with limited funding and resources, the State Department of Education provides training and support for school districts to further help their LGBT students.
“We provide a variety of support to help schools,” Kovalchick said. “It is a really great training, though we don’t have a lot of resources to get it widely spread and to help plan and help with these trainings. There has been a demand from schools and staff asking how they can better understand and support our students.”
The recent GLSEN report indicates that state laws, regulations and policy guidelines can have an impact on the presence of district anti-bullying policies and their content. It found that states with enumerated laws did influence districts’ anti-bully policy efforts.
“If we cannot get state laws to protect LGBT kids, then we need to push for local guidance leadership at the school and district level to change the culture of these schools,” Zook said. “State and national laws are never going to change people’s minds; you can never legislate people’s values, opinions and beliefs.”
Kovalchick echoed Zook’s opinions.
“If you’re looking at a hierarchy, if there is no state law existing, then district law takes precedent,” she said. “You could have a district policy, but if a state law comes into effect, that takes over the importance of the district policy.”