05/21/2010

New Teaching Tolerance Film to Address Anti-Gay Bullying in Schools

Jamie Nabozny in high schoolJamie Nabozny carefully planned his every move at school.

The anti-gay bullying by his classmates in Ashland, Wis., was relentless. What started as verbal abuse had become kicks and punches by the seventh grade.

Even before the first class bell sounded, Nabozny was already mapping out his day: He would get to school early to miss the rush of classmates, use hall passes to avoid harassment and scope out restrooms where he wouldn’t be accosted by fellow students. After his classmates left school, Nabozny would finally make his way home.

“I spent a lot of time thinking defensively, which is a strange thing to have to do at school,” said Nabozny, now 34. “Looking back, I feel like I tried to be numb as much as possible to not feel what was happening.”

Once he got home, Nabozny was no longer numb.

“The moment that I got home, I was allowed to feel what was happening,” he said. “I spent most nights in my bedroom with the door locked, crying. I wouldn’t come out to eat. It was hell.”

Nabozny’s story will be the subject of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s eighth Teaching Tolerance documentary film and teaching kit – a project aimed at ending anti-gay bullying in schools.

The film, titled “Bullied: A Student, a School and a Case that Made History,” will show how Nabozny stood up to his tormentors and filed a federal lawsuit against the school. His suit led to a landmark court decision that a public school could be held accountable for not stopping anti-gay abuse. The SPLC expects to begin distributing 25,000 teaching kits to educators in the fall.

Left unchecked, anti-gay abuse has devastating consequences. Research has found that gay students feel unsafe at school, are more likely to skip class, have lower grade point averages and are less likely to express interest in college than other students. They are more likely to have suicidal thoughts and more prone to behaviors such as smoking and abusing drugs and alcohol.
 
The 40-minute film will offer a powerful lesson for students and educators that anti-gay bullying is wrong. It will help youths recognize the harm caused by bullying and prompt educators to understand their responsibility to help stop it.

“Anti-gay bullying and prejudice is one of the few remaining forms of bigotry that can go unchecked on school campuses,” said Teaching Tolerance Director Maureen Costello. “Too often, homophobic remarks made in classrooms and hallways aren’t corrected. This film and teaching kit is aimed squarely at stopping anti-gay abuse in our schools.”

The kit will include information for school administrators explaining that they risk legal liability if LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) students are not included in a school’s anti-bullying policy.

Nationally, more than 80 percent of LGBT youths said their teachers never, or rarely, interrupt homophobic remarks, according to a 2007 survey by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN). While some teachers may look away due to their own biases, most teachers fail to interrupt these remarks because they don’t understand their obligations or know how to help.

A 2002 study from the National Mental Health Association found that 50 percent of youths said gay students are bullied most or all of the time in their schools. When LGBT students were asked directly in the GLSEN survey, 86 percent said they experience verbal bullying and 22 percent said they are assaulted in a typical school year.

“Schools that address gay issues are safer for all students,” Costello said. “This kit is the resource that’s needed to help curb the devastating abuse endured by these students.”

For Nabozny, the harassment escalated as he advanced in school. Once, a group of boys surrounded him and performed a mock rape in front of a class. Another time he was shoved into a urinal and urinated on. He was once kicked so hard he required abdominal surgery.

The response by school officials was discouraging. One middle school official told Nabozny to expect harassment if he planned on being gay. In high school, a school official asked Nabozny what he did to provoke the harassment. Nabozny’s federal lawsuit accused the school district and several administrators of failing to protect him from years of abuse.

Nabozny said he hopes the documentary will empower the students and educators with the knowledge and ability to make schools safer.

Today, Nabozny works in the banking industry but also travels across the country to speak about his experience. His audiences can be diverse, ranging from gay students currently attending school to employees of insurance companies that insure schools.

Jamie Nabozny speaking

“Harassment is harassment, and it should not be tolerated,” Nabozny said. “It doesn’t matter whether somebody’s gay or whether they’re Jewish or whether they’re overweight. Kids do not deserve it and they deserve to be protected and safe in their schools.”

The teaching kit will be available mid-September to teachers and educators at tolerance.org.