By Hannah Schwab
GRAND RAPIDS-Grand Valley State University’s College of Education hosted a screening of “Bullied,” followed by a panel discussion, on Jan. 18 in hopes of educating future teachers about gay bullying. The Southern Poverty Law Center’s documentary covers the true story of Jamie Nabozny, a gay teen from Wisconsin who sued his school for not protecting him against harassment and assault.
As a student, Nabozny attempted suicide and was hospitalized for physical attacks. He received no support from the administration: His middle school assistant principal told him to expect students to bully him if he was openly gay. The assistant principal also refused to address the issue with the bullies and their parents, telling Nabozny’s mother that “boys will be boys.”
Nabozny later won an out-of-court settlement of $900,000 with the school administration.
After the film, WGVU’s Shelley Irwin moderated a question and answer panel with counselors from the Grand Rapids and Sparta public schools and others who work with students and in the LGBT community.
Denise Borgan-Kator, interim executive director of Equality Michigan, said Michigan is only one of five states that does not have an anti-bullying law because lawmakers argue about its wording. She said the state does not want to pass a law that includes protection for LGBT students.
The law in question – Matt’s Law, named for 14-year-old Matt Epling who committed suicide in 2002 after being bullied at school – has languished for five years.
“The fact is this is not a gay issue – it’s about protecting all children,” Borgan-Kator said, but because gay students are much more likely to be victims, bullying becomes a gay-rights issue too.
Sue Verduin-Miller, a counselor for Sparta public schools, said it’s easy for adults and students who are bothered by bullying to become bystanders when they are unsure how to step in or who to talk to about a problem. “They fear if they speak up, they will be targeted (too),” she said.
“It is hard working alone,” she continued, “so it is our job within the schools to bring people together and give them a place to turn to.”
Dr. Michele Coyne, a school bullying consultant, said many schools don’t have a process or program in place to deal with bullying and prevent it because the programs take a lot of time and effort.
One program Coyne implemented at Kent Hills Elementary School in Grand Rapids involved weekly parent nights and teacher meetings, classroom instructions, meetings with students and reporting boxes in every class. While that seems like a lot of work to handle one problem, she said the school did see a difference in how students treated each other.
Kay Waters, a counselor for Grand Rapids Public Schools, said parents sometimes don’t know how to help.
“Parents often ask, ‘What are my rights in the school?'” she said. “I try to explain that it is OK to ask the teacher or principal for a meeting if their child is being bullied or there is a problem. If the issue isn’t resolved, it is not out of line to talk to a different administrator or go to a school board member.”
Verduin-Miller said sometimes it is hard for a parent to know if his or her child is being bullied.
“There is a difference between a child having a conflict with a student and being bullied,” she said. “Children need to learn to deal with conflict but it can be hard to know the difference.” Prolonged problems may signal bullying, she said, such as faking ill, going to school early or late, or only using specific areas of the building.
One reason Waters said bullying is getting to be such a big problem is because of the Internet.
“Cyber bullying is a real issue,” she said. “Students pick on a kid at school and then go home and get on social networking sites where the bullying continues. Even though this form of bullying happens out of school, it has become a punishable offense because it carries over and comes into school.”
Coyle said she recently heard about a fifth grader being suspended for bullying another student online.
“What happens online is the school’s problem,” she said.
So what can schools and teachers do?
Borgan-Kator recommended teachers and parents contact their state legislature about passing Matt’s Law. She also recommended schools look into the free training that Equality Michigan and other nonprofits offer.
Coyle suggested the federal government step up and start a grassroots campaign against all types of bullying.
“I grew up in the era of ‘don’t be a litter bug’ and ‘give a hoot – don’t pollute’ and those were extremely successful for the country,” she said. “I know the government doesn’t have any money to start a professional campaign to fight bullying, but a challenge to the nation has worked in the past.”
Coyle also recommended books that schools and parents can read, such as “Schools Where Everyone Belongs” by Stan Davis and “Nobody Left to Hate” by Elliot Aronson.
Verduin-Miller recommended the simple step of listening.
“Don’t discount the value of listening and being available to a student,” she said. “Kids are being hurt by bullying. We need to treat the pain as a legit problem causing real damage. If you’re a teacher and you see an upset kid, ask them what is wrong. Make your classroom available for a GSA meeting. Just be open and be there for these kids.”