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Make it better in schools right now

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

“I’m afraid my whole life is going to be like this. People will always be calling me names.” -Jordan, 8th grader, in Confessions of an Urban Principal: October

Asher Brown recently committed suicide. He was 13 years old. He shot himself in the head with his stepfather’s gun. According to media reports, he was relentlessly bullied and tormented by other students in his school. Earlier in the day on which he died, he had told his parents that he was gay.

As I read and followed the numerous media reports related to this recent rash of youthful suicides, I couldn’t help but note the lack of response on the part of educators.

Who more than anyone else can have a powerful impact on the daily quality of life children will enjoy? Research has indicated that whole school interventions can be very effective in addressing the problem of bullying. This is a systemic problem that can only be modified by addressing the entire school culture. This task cannot be accomplished solely through the acts of gay adults and student activists. Creating a safe and welcoming school community is primarily the responsibility of the teachers, principals, and paraprofessionals who staff any school.

According to media reports, the teachers and administrators in Asher Brown’s school did nothing to help this young boy as he struggled to free himself of the torment that plagued him. They stated that they had no knowledge nor had they received any complaints in regards to Asher being bullied.

I don’t understand how the adults in his school could not know that Asher was being bullied.

When I was a classroom teacher, it was my business to be aware of my students’ interactions. Developing an understanding of the personality of each child in my classroom was essential information to me. I made it a point to pay attention when a particular child’s behavior was out of the ordinary. It was actually hard not to notice when a child’s gender expressions didn’t match with societal norms. I noted children’s behavior not so I could judge them, but so that I could help them. It was my job to protect the children of my classroom from being bullied.

Asher is one of several young people who have recently taken their own lives after suffering continuous harassment regarding their sexual orientation or gender expression. These tragic losses have sparked a strong response in the adult gay community.

One of the more publicized reactions is Dan Savage’s, It Gets Better Project. The participants in this Internet-based outreach effort provide frank and touching descriptions of their own stories of being bullied and tormented in middle and high school. They also recount the happiness and sense of belonging that they have found as adults. The consistent message communicated to young gay teens is that after high school life will get better. The willingness of these positive adult role models to come forward and speak up in this manner strongly speaks to LGBT youth that they are not alone and they are members of a larger community.

LGBT teens have taken the message of their elders a step further by organizing their own Make It Better Project. They want their lives to be better now; waiting until after high school feels unreasonable to them. It is a long time to wait, considering that many more young people are realizing that they are gay and are considering coming out at earlier ages.

The Make it Better Project focuses on directing youthful energy and idealism into acts of self empowerment such as joining or organizing gay straight alliances, telling one’s own stories on YouTube, and lobbying elected officials to support the Safe Schools Improvement Act and the Student Nondiscrimination Act.

The urgency to act on making school life better for young people victimized by homophobic behavior is also felt by many straight students who recognize how wrong this kind of discrimination is. This awareness is reflected in this perceptive post that describes one student’s disgust at gay-bashing. The participation of many students in national events such as the annual Day of Silence is another signal of growing student discontent with school environments that are hostile and hateful towards gay students.

My responsibility to help protect LGBT students was magnified when I became a principal. Yet with many more children to care for, I still knew when a child was having a particularly hard time, either academically or socially. I made sure that I was aware of what was going on in the school. Students, teachers, custodial staff, volunteers, and parents alike talked with me all of the time about issues and concerns. I used the information I gathered from these conversations to make decisions about how to shape and influence the school’s climate. Principals are the people who can have the greatest influence in creating a welcoming school.

Children learn best when they feel that they belong to a positive, concerned, and caring community. Bullying, teasing, and harassment are serious obstacles that can impede our efforts to teach our children well.

Teachers and principals can make life better for every child in our schools right now. We can do so by making sure bullies aren’t able to intimidate or isolate any person. Equally important, each of us adults must also respect and accept each child for the person that she or he is.

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