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SPLC to U.S. Commission on Civil Rights: Combating Anti-LGBT Bullying Requires Focus on School Climate

Protecting students from anti-LGBT bullying requires school-wide efforts that include specific anti-bullying policies as well as a focus on nurturing school climates where respect for differences is an integral part of school life, the SPLC told the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in written testimony submitted for a public briefing today.

Protecting students from anti-LGBT bullying requires school-wide efforts that include specific anti-bullying policies as well as a focus on nurturing school climates where respect for differences is an integral part of school life, the Southern Poverty Law Center told the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in written testimony submitted for a public briefing today.

The testimony was submitted by Teaching Tolerance Director Maureen Costello and LGBT Rights Attorney Sam Wolfe as part of the commission's briefing on "Peer-to-Peer Violence and Bullying" in Washington, D.C.

"We must recognize that anti-LGBT bullying is not ‘kids being kids,'" the SPLC officials told the Commission. "It's not some rite of passage that students must endure. All bullying is about an imbalance of power. It's a mindset that dehumanizes others. Bullying because of race, religion, ethnicity or sexual orientation is, at its heart, a denial of an entire group's right to exist equally with others."

Surveys consistently show that virtually every LGBT student experiences bullying at school, the testimony notes. And students subjected to anti-LGBT bullying often report lower grades, less interest in college and greater levels of depression and anxiety.

Among the materials submitted with the testimony was Teaching Tolerance's anti-bullying documentary, "Bullied." The SPLC has made the film and its viewer's guide available free to every school in the country. Since it was released in September, approximately 53,000 copies have been distributed, and an estimated 7 million schoolchildren have seen it. It has also been screened by community groups in cities across the country.

Testimony of Maureen Costello, Teaching Tolerance Director, and Samuel Wolfe, LGBT Rights Attorney, Southern Poverty Law Center Before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights
May 13, 2011

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) is a nonprofit civil rights organization founded in 1971 and located in Montgomery, Alabama. We are dedicated to advancing and protecting the rights of minorities and victims of injustice in significant civil rights and social justice litigation. We also work to reduce prejudice and bigotry among the nation's youth by providing educators across the country with free anti-bias resources through our Teaching Tolerance project.

A key part of Teaching Tolerance's mission is addressing the most common manifestation of prejudice and bigotry in our schools today – bullying. A child is in school to learn, to build the foundation for his or her future. But that doesn't happen in a school where bullying thrives. No classroom lesson can hold a student's attention when taunts, slurs and physical attacks are part of the school day.

The bottom line is that we must ensure that all children feel safe at school.

We are particularly concerned about the bullying of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender – or LGBT – students. It is one of the few remaining forms of bigotry that can go unchecked on campuses.

Surveys consistently show that virtually every LGBT student experiences bullying at school. A survey released by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network – or GLSEN – in September 2010 found that nearly nine out of 10 LGBT students experienced harassment in 2009. LGBT students are not the only ones who are targeted. Anti-LGBT bullying also is frequently directed at students who are perceived as gay or whose appearance and behavior differs from strict gender norms.

Anti-LGBT bullying can have a profound impact on students and their education. The GLSEN survey found that students subjected to high levels of anti-LGBT bullying were three times more likely to have missed school in the preceding month. Bullied LGBT students also have lower grade-point averages – almost half a grade lower than other students. They are less likely to express interest in college than other students. In addition, numerous educators have voiced their concerns to the SPLC about such harassment leading to school dropout. Once students have given up on school, their future opportunities are seriously diminished. Up to 40 percent of homeless youth are gay, lesbian or transgender, a report from the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force found.

But the damage inflicted by bullying goes beyond education. Bullied LGBT students report lower self-esteem and greater levels of depression and anxiety. And, youths with same-sex orientation are more than twice as likely as their heterosexual peers to attempt suicide, research has shown.

This was tragically underscored in 2010 when five young men in five different states died by suicide after being harassed by classmates because they were gay or were perceived to be gay. We are only getting a small glimpse into a destructive phenomenon. There are countless others whose distraught families have kept their tragedies private.

The fallout from anti-LGBT bullying may touch us in unexpected ways. A study from the State University of New York at Stony Brook found that in school shootings, the gunman often suffered anti-LGBT harassment before resorting to deadly violence. Yet there is no evidence that any of these gunmen were gay.

We must recognize that anti-LGBT bullying is not "kids being kids." It's not some rite of passage that students must endure. All bullying is about an imbalance of power. It's a mindset that dehumanizes others. Bullying because of race, religion, ethnicity or sexual orientation is, at its heart, a denial of an entire group's right to exist equally with others.

The connection between bullying and bias is strong. In a large study of California middle and high school students conducted by University of Arizona professor Stephen T. Russell, nearly 40 percent reported that they had been bullied within the past year. Analyzing the incidents, Russell concluded that 75 percent of all bullying came from some type of bias, such as race, sexual orientation or religion.

At the SPLC, we have seen bullying that involved swastika graffiti, "jokes" involving nooses or Klan hoods, anti-Latino slurs and "chase the Jew" games. This is not harmless teasing. This is not child's play. It's a serious civil rights problem.

The Southern Poverty Law Center believes that schools err in dealing with anti-LGBT bullies – or any bullies – as simply misbehaving youth. A school's climate provides the soil in which bullying either thrives or dies, and nurturing a positive school climate is essential to preventing bullying.

Both the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights and social justice organizations such as GroundSpark have also recognized the importance of school climate. There is simply no evidence that focusing only on holding bullies individually accountable for their behavior reduces bullying.

Many studies have shown that schools that effectively promote diversity and anti-bias education, as well as schools that specifically name the kinds of behaviors that are off-limits – such as using anti-LGBT slurs – are safer for all students and have fewer incidents of bullying. Effective programs also ensure that anti-bullying initiatives are truly school-wide efforts in which diversity and a respect for differences are integral parts of school life.

Unfortunately, many schools may fail to examine how their curriculum and policies related to student life – such as athletics and extra-curricular activities – contribute to the messages they send about bias and acceptance. We must focus on the school climate if we want to address the roots of the bullying problem.

Barriers to Stopping Anti-LGBT Bullying
Given the devastating consequences, it seems unthinkable that anti-LGBT bullying can go unchecked in schools, particularly in those with anti-bullying policies. But too often, educators fail to recognize anti-LGBT bullying and take a strong stand against it.

When a school has an anti-LGBT bullying problem, the pressure to deny it can be great. School leaders may fear a backlash to efforts to protect LGBT students. Parents and anti-gay activists can hijack and politicize these efforts, turning the effort into a public relations nightmare for administrators.

There also are influential political organizations actively fighting efforts to protect LGBT students. These organizations sometimes make the false claim that stopping this harassment infringes on the religious freedom of others. Groups such as Focus on the Family, for example, have claimed that efforts to stop bullying are part of a nefarious agenda for "sneaking homosexuality lessons into classrooms." This is simply not true.

Contrary to what some critics say, addressing anti-LGBT bullying does not grant LGBT students special rights any more than specifically banning bullying based on race, disability or religion gives students special privileges. It simply ensures that LGBT students receive similar protections against harassment as other students.

Yet in some areas, hostility to LGBT people is so ingrained that the words used to describe them are pejoratives that teachers and other adults ignore. The SPLC has heard many stories from students who, upon coming out, are pulled aside by a "caring" teacher and told that they're going to hell. Other times schools may resist allowing students to form Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs), or they may subject GSAs to different rules.

We must also recognize the larger anti-LGBT climate in the United States and how it can influence potential bullies and also stymie efforts to combat bullying. The LGBT community has been the target of relentless defamation in this country. Anti-LGBT activists accuse this community of everything from rampant pedophilia to orchestrating the Holocaust.

The atmosphere is toxic. But even more disturbing are the results of this demonization. An SPLC analysis of federal hate crime statistics, published in November 2010, found that LGBT people are far more likely to be victims of a violent hate crime than any other minority group in the United States. We must realize that schools reflect their communities. If there is intolerance toward gays and lesbians in a community, we can expect to see it in that community's schools, from the students up to the administrators.

A Problem that Needs to be Addressed
Educators need tools to identify and address anti-LGBT bullying in their schools. To help provide those tools, the SPLC's Teaching Tolerance program produced "Bullied," a classroom-length documentary designed to raise awareness about anti-LGBT bullying among middle and high school students. The film, which is available free of charge to educators, can also be used to help teachers and administrators better understand their responsibilities for protecting all students from bullying. The response by educators across the country to "Bullied" demonstrates the growing need to address anti-LGBT bullying. More than 51,000 copies of "Bullied" have been ordered since it was released in September 2010.

"Bullied" is endorsed by the National Education Association, GroundSpark, GLSEN and others. It tells the story of Jamie Nabozny, who suffered relentless verbal and physical abuse at the hands of his classmates in Ashland, Wis. School officials failed to stop the attacks, despite pleas from Nabozny and his parents. Nabozny eventually filed a federal lawsuit against his school district, leading to a landmark federal court decision holding that school officials can be held accountable for not stopping the harassment and abuse of gay and lesbian students. Nabozny is openly gay, but the film does not focus on issues of sexual behavior or the debate about sexual orientation. The film attempts to build empathy among students by focusing on the experience of being a victim.

The primary message of "Bullied" is not a controversial one. It's not a gay message or a straight message. It's a message that says no one should feel unsafe at school.

"Bullied" has also provided a remarkable insight into schools and classrooms across the country. The SPLC surveyed 39,000 educators who had ordered the film. We asked them whether they had used the film, to rate it and tell us about the impact. There was an overwhelming response that showed the film was needed. Many educators said they felt there was insufficient recognition of the problem and support from administrators.

Three questions allowed open-ended responses, or verbatims. We have submitted with this testimony a spreadsheet with a sampling of the responses. We drew these conclusions from the responses:

  • The subject of anti-LGBT bullying is taboo in many places, meaning that episodes go unnoticed and unreported. To quote one educator, "the issues are real and they are here to stay whether we choose to acknowledge them or not."

  • Bullying is commonplace. Teachers quite often learned this from students during classroom discussions sparked by the film.

  • Bullying is ill-defined. Many students who viewed the film said they engaged in behavior that they only recognized as bullying upon seeing the film. One educator even reported students crying and apologizing to students they had bullied.

  • School staffs are in denial about the nature and extent of the problem. Several educators complained of an atmosphere where faculty and administrators have their "heads in the sand." Others even complained of insensitive comments by fellow staff members.

  • There is a profound unwillingness among administrators to address any issue touching on sexual orientation, even if a student's safety is at stake. One educator reported that the school's principal needed the superintendent's permission to show "Bullied" to the school's staff.

Combating the Problem
The need for schools and communities to recognize and combat the destructive power of anti-LGBT bullying is undeniable. The effects of bullying last longer than the fear that haunts the student during the school day. They last longer than the physical injuries that will heal over time.

As one educator, who teaches adults who have dropped out of school, told the SPLC: "Over the past 11 years of teaching, not one adult has said they dropped out of school due to school work; they all dropped out because of people – sadly including teachers, counselors, and administrators who do not understand or are not sympathetic to their needs."

There is a great need for effective anti-bias programs to combat bullying. Fortunately, there are programs and resources available. The SPLC's Teaching Tolerance program provides schools with free anti-bias materials such as "Bullied." It also sponsors the annual "Mix It Up at Lunch Day," which encourages students across the country to sit with someone new at lunch for one day. The goal is to break down the barriers between students so there are fewer misunderstandings that can lead to conflicts, bullying and harassment.

Similarly, GLSEN sponsors "No Name Calling Week," a week of educational activities designed to address bullying and name-calling. Organizations such as GroundSpark and the Anti-Defamation League's A World of Difference® Institute also provide anti-bias resources that can be used to combat anti-LGBT bullying.

These efforts must not stop with students. We must recognize the crucial role of faculty and staff. Effective remedies must include training to help educators recognize anti-LGBT bullying. And educators must understand that the requirement for schools to be safe environments for all students – including LGBT students – is not an assault on religious freedom or free speech.

We can no longer ignore anti-LGBT bullying. We must recognize the threat and its devastating consequences. This is not about changing anyone's beliefs. It is not about some radical agenda. But it is about recognizing that every child deserves a safe learning environment.