Beyond It Gets Better

Readers have been contacting me to ask: what more can we do beyond the It Gets Better project? The project, in the few weeks since its inception, has brought hope to millions of kids, shined a spotlight on bullying in schools, and launched a national grassroots movement with over 100,000 supporters, including President Obama. It is hugely important to let LGBT teenagers know that if they can make it past the terrible years of middle school and high school, life does get better. But isn’t it also time that we actually change the experience of going to school, so that kids don’t have to be disrespected, harassed, and bullied? Isn’t it time to send the message that such torment needn’t be a normal part of growing up?

I believe that it’s time for our schools to tackle the root causes of bullying. I know that this is hard work, not only because I am in my fourth year of trying to make progress at my children’s school, but because I hear from parents all across the country about the struggle to combat bullying related to gender identity and perceived sexual orientation.

So I’m trying again. And I hope you will try too, whether for the first time or as a renewed effort. This week I wrote a letter to the head of our school, the principals of the lower school and the middle school, and the school counselor, asking them to do more. I encourage you to write your own letter. If you need some ideas to get started, here are three things that you can say to your school administrators:

1. Acknowledge any anti-bullying or inclusiveness work that your school has done in the past. People hear you better when you acknowledge their efforts. And if they’ve done nothing, it will help if you are grateful that they are taking the time to listen to you right now.

2. Tell them that, in the wake of a rash of teen suicides related to anti-gay bullying, you need them to do more to protect your child. Share the ways that your child has been bullied or harassed, and let them know that yours is not the only child who suffers. Remind them that not a small number of kids from your school will grow up to be gay (some of these kids will figure this out in middle school, or even earlier), that there are LGBT families in your school, and that there are a fair number of gender-nonconforming kids in your school who (regardless of sexuality) experience challenges because of their differences. Tell them that the only way to get ahead of the bullying—to prevent it, rather than punishing it after it occurs—is to educate the faculty, staff, and the entire student body, in age-appropriate ways, in all grades. In this way, your school can work to prevent the kind of tragedies that have occurred across the country in recent weeks.

3. Give them some background. The GLSEN 2009 School Climate Report supplies helpful (though disturbing) information: at the time of the study, nearly 90% of LGBT students experienced verbal harassment at school, 40% experienced physical harassment, and 19% reported physical assault. Your school officials need to know this—and they also need to know that they can make a difference.

Give your school administrators some specific ideas for how they can develop their own anti-bullying curriculum. Here are some good ones to choose from:

Welcoming Schools, a program of the Human Rights Campaign, provides K-5 schools with resources on embracing family diversity, avoiding gender stereotypes, and ending bullying and name-calling.

Teaching Tolerance supports schools (using teaching kits, tips for students, and professional development resources) so that they can create inclusive and equitable K-12 learning environments .

– The GLSEN Jump-Start Guide for Gay-Straight Alliances and the GSA Network can help your school create a middle school Gay-Straight Alliance.

– Organizations like Our Family Coalition and Gender Spectrum can come to your elementary, middle, or high school to train faculty, staff, students, and parents about family diversity, gender roles, stereotyping, and anti-bullying in age-appropriate ways.

– The GLSEN Safe Space Kit is intended to help educators create a safe space for LGBT youth.

– The Trevor Project’s Trevor Survival Kit is designed to facilitate classroom discussions about gender identity, sexual orientation, and suicide prevention.

– Your school can bring in age-appropriate anti-bullying films such as Teaching Tolerance’s Bullied, Groundspark’s Let’s Get Real and Straightlaced, and the Trevor Project’s Trevor.

– Discuss bringing adults together by launching a Gay Straight Parent Teacher Alliance. We can’t be effective at ending bullying until we all have a stake in each other’s wellbeing—and inviting the straight families to join in the LGBT work of the community will let us grownups do what we are asking our children to do: to work together and respect each other’s differences.

And most of all, thank them. Thank them for all they have done, and for considering your requests. Acknowledge that it’s hard work to make change, but that you are fully committed to it and you know other parents will be too. Tell them that none of us can do it alone—but that together, we can save lives.

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Comments

  1. says

    May I add a suggestion? Offer to put together an anti-bullying presentation yourself–using, for instance, the SPLC film “Bullied” (which includes suggestions for discussion). Obviously the tricky part of this is that the school/principal can’t know if what you’ll put together will be responsible, conform with district regulations, etc–but you can offer to do it first for the teachers/admin, so they can vet it.

    That’s what I’m doing. After the teachers, I want to screen it for fellow parents. Because I think that any anti-bullying program in a school is going to be *far* more successful if parents are on board, and also because I think it will reassure the school if the parents are given the option (as with sex ed) to “opt out” on behalf of their kids.

    Maybe not perfect, but it’s a start.

    • shoffman says

      Tedra, great idea–I say whatever works in your particular school community is the way to go.

      There are two risks I see when parents of gender-nonconforming kids do a presentation at their child’s school themselves. One is that other parents sometimes then see the issue as about one child/family, not a broader issue that we all need to be concerned with. The other is that it calls attention to the particular child. In our case that isn’t a big deal–Sam has always felt loved and embraced when he has seen us doing work on his behalf. But other kids I’ve known don’t want to be on anyone’s radar.

      But big picture, I say we need to get these resources into our schools any way we can….in as many ways as we can.

  2. Tracy Hewat says

    Great post. PFLAG is another good resource. My mother used to speak as a member of PFLAG in 5-6 classes / semester at the local high school. Sometimes I joined her as an out adult who grew up in the area. We always talked a lot about bullying of all kinds.

  3. says

    I am blessed to teach at a small private school with zero-tolerance for bullying. The “It Gets Better” project is incredible program that’s been needed for a long time. I believe that we need more than a purple shirt week to combat this problem. Why did it take young people taking their lives for someone to stand up and stay STOP? Finally people are saying no, it’s not okay to make a person feel ashamed because of skin color, sexual orientation, religion, height, weight, intellect, hobbies, etc. It’s not acceptable to bully, judge, and dehumanize a person and make them the punchline of your jokes. It’s not funny. It’s not cool. It a tragedy when a child or adult ends his life because of the debilitating power of words that should never have been said. We at Whitzend kidZone, a bully and label-free kids’ hangout in Tampa, FL decided to do our part to say STOP HATE. I agree that there needs to be some type of program in place in all schools and all grades that teaches tolerance, but it also can be taught in community centers and any place where young people gather socially. With our motto borrowed from Gandhi- “be the change,” we are teaching it in our hangout and created a Facebook page STOP H8 to add our voice to fight against this crisis. I pray that when my teenage daughter grows up and has children of her own, bullying will be something that happened “in the old days,” not continued into her present.

  4. Rosie says

    What do you do with a homophobic administration? As in, the principal drove away an assistant principal for being bisexual, they do next to nothing when gay kids report harassment, and they did almost everything in their power to prevent students from starting a GSA at the school.

    • shoffman says

      Rosie, this is where the work is hardest–when there is ingrained hatred at the administrative level. The only thing to do is to keep trying, and keep talking, WITHIN THE BOUNDS OF SATEFY–to other parents, to parents at more accepting schools, to people online, to organizations like Our Family Coalition, to anyone willing to have the conversation. You will hit walls and want to tear out your hair. But only if we keep having the conversation about eradicating intolerance is there any way to make headway. AND those of us at more open-minded schools will fight hard to make change, which will eventually set in motion a cultural shift. I know it’s hard to wait, I know it’s frustrating and horrifying and baffling. Know that others are fighting on your behalf.

      There is also a resource for those who have experienced bullying, harassment, or discrimination because of sexual orientation or gender identity: Please file a report with the Office for Civil Rights through the Claim Your Rights campaign: http://community.pflag.org/claimyourrights

  5. Rosie says

    One issue is, I’m only a recent alumna, not a parent or anything. I just hear horror stories from my gay friends, and the assistant principal thing happened when I was in school.

    My stupid state does not include sexual orientation in its anti-discrimination policy. Basically, we’re screwed.

  6. Jacqui at Write Your Principal says

    Rosie, there are ways to combat what you’re talking about–one of which is to write to the school yourself and encourage other alumni to do so. (That’s what writeyourprincipal.com is all about!)

    It might also help you to know that students have a LEGAL RIGHT to start GSAs. There are a ton of resources about this out there, but the GSA Network (gsanetwork.org), a San Francisco-based org, is the best of the best on this.

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