Gay bullying must end

In wake of suicides, schools face federal scrutiny

"It can reach out and get you 24-7. I think that's really hard for youth," says Vickie Henry, senior staff attorney for Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders. "We've had situations with youth spending a lot of time online trying to respond to these attacks."

The same Iowa study found that gay bullying victims were less likely to go to an adult for help, especially if their parents were inclined to restrict internet access or take away their cell phones.

In an attempt to stop anti-gay harassment, Facebook has stepped up its reporting options and formed a coalition with groups like the Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians and Gays. Advocates have fought in and out of court with districts that claim to be absolved of responsibility for student behavior off school grounds.

Jamie Nabozny (right) and Bo Shafer get fitted for their wedding tuxes
Emily Utne
Jamie Nabozny (right) and Bo Shafer get fitted for their wedding tuxes

Tyler Clementi's parents say that if their son's complaint had been taken seriously by his dorm's resident assistant, their son might still be alive today.

"Maybe if his RA had reported it as a crime right away, if some adults had gotten involved, the police could have assisted Tyler," his mother, Jane Clementi, says. "We didn't know about it until it was too late."

They hope Tyler's story will open parents' eyes before it's too late.

"We realized that losing a child is probably the worst experience a parent can have," says Tyler's father, Joseph. "We started the foundation to remember Tyler and try to keep other parents from going through this kind of suffering that we went through."

At the same time, social media has been an invaluable tool for the anti-bullying movement. After Dan Savage posted the first "It Gets Better" video, he received 200 submissions in one week. Now the campaign counts 50,000 contributions — everyone from Adam Lambert to the LA Dodgers has participated.

"I just spoke at a high school journalism conference in Seattle," says Savage. "There were thousands of high school journalists, and half a dozen kids approached me and burst into tears because of the difference 'It Gets Better' has made in their lives."

When schools tell students they can't have a same-sex prom date or wear a "Jesus Is Not a Homophobe" T-shirt, advocacy firms like the ACLU, Lambda Legal, and GLAAD come to their aid. They now also have a powerful ally in the White House.

"Once Obama took office, people started really running," says Deborah Temkin, the Department of Education's research and policy coordinator for Bullying Prevention Initiatives. "We are engaged with nine other federal agencies, and I believe at last count it was 32 offices within those nine agencies all working on this issue, which is unprecedented. We came together without a congressional mandate."

Despite howls of outrage from Republicans, GLSEN founder Kevin Jennings was appointed to the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools in 2009. The Matthew Shepard Act became law, making assault based on sexual orientation a federal hate crime.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently sent what's known colloquially as a "Dear Colleague" letter to every school in the country declaring this administration would consider discrimination against LGBT students a potential violation of Title IX.

"We're seeing a much more active role by this administration," says Alison Gill, public policy manager at GLSEN. "It's started to create this tipping point."

Two days after the "Dear Colleague" letter, the Department of Justice received a complaint from Wendy Walsh. She wrote that her son was harassed from the day he came out in sixth grade until the day he hung himself. Federal investigators took the case.

"Despite having notice of the harassment, the district did not adequately investigate or otherwise respond to it," the Office of Civil Rights concluded. "Based on the evidence gathered in the investigation, the departments concluded that the school district violated Title IX and Title IV."

New York Civil Liberties Union attorney Corey Stoughton reports that the Department of Justice was eager to help when she sued on behalf of Jacob Lasher, a gay student in the Mohawk school district of upstate New York who dropped out over violent threats from other students and harassment by teachers.

"They called us. They told us they'd been looking for a case to establish this Department of Justice's approach," she says of the DOJ. "The Bush administration never would have done this."

But no school district received as much national attention as Anoka-Hennepin in Minnesota. The district experienced nine student suicides in two years, many of them directly related to LGBT bullying. A district policy mandating that teachers remain "neutral" on topics of sexual orientation left the adults standing on the sidelines.

Six student plaintiffs told of being stabbed with pencils and urinated on in restrooms. The media frenzy culminated with a Rolling Stone article that caught the attention of celebrities including Aziz Ansari and Howard Stern.

"It was the first time anyone had taken any interest in what was actually going on," says Rebecca Rooker, whose son Kyle used to plead to come home from his Anoka-Hennepin school. "We got basically everything we asked for."

Years of denial finally ended when the district tossed out its "no homo promo" policy and agreed to five years of DOJ monitoring as well as a raft of anti-harassment precautions.

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