By Tara Cavanaugh
What is a “climate”? You can’t touch one or carry one. Weather-wise, a climate is defined by a variety of factors, such as rainfall, elevation, temperature and so on. But what about the climate of an organization? What about the climate of a school? How do you define that?
And if the climate were broken, how would you fix it?
This is the problem with LGBT bullying in schools. The intangible climate depends on a host of factors, and if that climate is conducive to bullying, then it needs a host of solutions.
Here’s a look at the state and local hands-on efforts to improve school climates
Attempts at a statewide law
Michigan is one of six states that does not have any kind of statewide anti-bullying legislation, said Jay Kaplan, staff attorney for the ACLU of Michigan’s LGBT Project.
Matt’s Safe Law, a Michigan anti-bullying law, was introduced in 2006. Enumerated versions of the bill (that include specific language to protect LGBT students) and non-enumerated versions of the bill have languished.
Emily Dievendorf, director of policy at Equality Michigan, has been pushing for the enumerated version of the bill to pass because “we know that LGBT kids are disproportionately affected by bullying, so we don’t feel we can neglect to address that. It’s increasingly frustrating when people assume that we can’t make progress on this, because our argument is solid.”
Even though the argument is solid, the current political atmosphere at the state level may not be ready to deal with it this year, said State Senator Glenn Anderson, D-Westland. Anderson introduced the bill in 2006.
“Opponents (of an enumerated anti-bullying policy) claim local districts can do this already. Well of course they can,” Anderson said, flustered. The problem school districts and school boards face on the local level is a lot of fear and resistance, especially in conservative areas, he said.
Kaplan said state legislation would be helpful, but it’s not necessarily the only goal.
“I thinks it’s naive to think a state law is going to change or remove this problem because we know the majority of (school) districts have anti-bullying policies,” Kaplan said. “It’s not worth the piece of paper it’s written on if people aren’t informed about what it means.”
LGBT students at schools that have an enumerated anti-bullying policy still report feeling unsafe, Kaplan said. “There’s a hesitance on the part of some districts… they talk about the umbrella of bullying, but they don’t want to talk about gay students specifically, and you have to. You have to take the proactive steps. We have to work towards changing the culture in our schools.”
The Jim Toy Community Center held a bullying summit Jan. 9 to brainstorm ways to address bullying. More than 50 people attended, including Anderson and local students.
The summit created six task forces to come up with ways to address school administrations, offer trainings, and push state legislators. The task forces will meet as early as this week, Toy said, and the center hopes to have another summit this year.
At the summit, Toy said some solutions were posed for dealing with bullying in schools:
Sync with school administrations
“The dialogue with PTO’s, school boards and administrations needs to come first,” Toy said. “You can’t just walk in and schedule a training.”
One way to help get those kinds of school leaders on board is by getting support from the teachers union too. There might be resistance from the union, but it’s worth a try, Toy said, because unions have tremendous influence in school districts.
Looking for allies is also important. Toy suggested banding together with local church leaders that are supportive of LGBT equality to help talk with school administrations and to offer school trainings.
Train teachers, staff and students to talk
Proper training is more than just recognizing and punishing the act of bullying, Toy said. Everyone needs to know his and her rights.
The problem encountered by Jay McDowell, the teacher in Howell who kicked a student out of class for his anti-gay views last year, was that the student wasn’t doing anything wrong by expressing himself, Toy said. Teachers can express their views too, as long as they don’t prevent students from participating in class activities while doing so.
For example, on the Day of Silence, teachers must accept written answers instead of verbal answers from students, and give students credit for participating in class activities. The teacher cannot force the student to stop expressing his or her support of the Day of Silence.
Toy said McDowell could have used the student’s views as a way to facilitate a classroom conversation and learning opportunity.
“I think when we look at the issue of bullying we have to look at all the ways we can change that discourse. We’ve heard a lot lately about civil discourse. That really comes from training and education,” Kaplan said.
Prepare schools of education and social work
“Teachers and social workers and counselors need to be supportive,” Toy said. They also need to be aware of bullying and be prepared to deal with it in their careers.
“The local folks, students especially, don’t be afraid to share your personal stories,” Anderson said. “I think they should share their stories by writing letters, reaching out to the legislators, and even writing to the newspaper if they’re not afraid to do that.”