January 11, 1999
Teachers are among the keys to preventing incidents of anti-gay harassment and violence among school-age children, according to the author of a study released last week.
"But they can't do what they need to do without strong support from administrators," said Beth Reis, a King County Public Health Educator. "Teachers have the biggest effect on students' lives."
The Safe Schools Project, five years in the collecting and analyzing, found that no age-level, race, sex, or locale in the state was safe from harrasment or assaults against gay students.
At least one incident of the 111 detailed in the report occured in the Northshore, Riverview (Duvall-Carnation), Lake Washington, and Snohomish school districts, according to Reis.
Overall, the incidents range from teasing on the playground and classroom to assaults and gang rapes. Especially shocking are the incidents occurring at the elementary school level. The youngest victim was six.
In at least one case, a sixth-grade boy, struggling with feelings that he's a girl on the inside, had his diary stolen and sold by classmates for $10 a page. In another, a mother whose son is being called "gay" and "queer" goes to the principal who tells her she is "blowing it out of proportion" and "overreacting."
At least two people were reported to have committed suicide, and 11 were gang-raped, the report found. The anonymous incidents were reported in person or over the phone by victims, friends, parents, and administrators.
As disturbing as the report is, Reis finds hope in what seems like an impossible task: to quell disrespect of certain individuals. She says she has seen changes in the years of collecting the data. As a guest speaker, she's had teachers speak up when students have said things. Also, she believes parents are now more in tune with the problem, especially in light of recent events.
"The average parent is more concerned about the issue, if for nothing else than the death of Matthew Shepard," said Reis. She said parents don't want to see their children go to prison for a crime similar to the savage beating of Shepard in Wyoming, or to be affected by someone else's bias.
According to the report, the salient factor making a person vulnerable to attack isn't whether the person is actually homosexual or bisexual, but the attackers' perception of the victim's orientation.
One incident--at the high school level--details how two boys, who mistook another boy for a girl, took to harassing the student, bumping into him in hallways. One eventually pretended to make up for everything outside school, but attacked the boy.
The goal of the report, is three-fold, Reis says: "To debunk the misunderstanding that many administrators and parents have that these things don't happen in Washington State. To help us all understand how this happens, how this affects those affected. And finally, to assist school districts in policy development."
"So much energy goes into things that are well-documented and understood," Reis said. "We can see SAT scores, so resources go into reading, writing, and arithmetic. But safety issues don't get taken as seriously as others."
"Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered children are precious and vital members of our community," said Dr. Alonzo Plough of the Seattle-King County Department of Public Health in a statement. "They deserve to be and feel safe--whether in schools, on the street, or in their homes."
The study looks at how students are affected by this harassment and violence. Comments included "it made me cry" to "it makes me fear going to high school every day."
Students become lonely and depressed. Some considered suicide. But others report a sense of empowerment. "It has made me a lot more active, made me push harder to try to fix what's wrong at my school," reported one. "I think one of the most important things in the study," says Reis, "is the hopefulness--administrators and parents who stood up for the kids and the educators who stood up for the right thing. Things we learned were real heartening."
"It's not about changing society, but changing the climate in one classroom at a time," Reis added. Recommendations on how to fight gay bashing include training teachers and staff about the difficulties facing those of different sexual persuasions, establishing policies that foster the dignity and rights of all students, as well as having onsite support groups for gay, lesbian, and bisexual students. The report terms the last suggestion as "a profound and visible message to sexual minority students as well as would-be harassers."
At Woodinville High School, FADE, an acronym for Falcons Against Discrimination Everywhere, was formed several years ago to fight discrimination at school and in the community.
The Northshore School District also has policies on sexual harassment, which include unwelcome male to male, female to female, male to female, and female to male conduct that creates an intimidating or offensive environment.
The report also calls for including discussion of homosexuality not only in health class, but suggests studying works by gay authors, historical events be studied, and personal feelings be explored through art.