Reflections of an Author
Submitted by Frank Murphy on July 14, 2011
The Attic Youth Center is an independent organization in Philadelphia dedicated to the work of making life better for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth of our city. In order to get its message out to young people who have been victimized by homophobic bullying, the Attic has initiated an advertising campaign on our public transportation system. Posters are displayed on SEPTA buses and subway cars carrying the following message: “It’s OK to Be You.”
According to a report issued in 2009 by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), a national nonprofit group focused on LGBT issues, many gay and lesbian students in Pennsylvania schools are often bullied and harassed by their classmates. The same report noted that about 85% of LGBT students nationally were harassed at school in 2008. These troubling statistics should be cause for concern regarding how well the adults in our schools are addressing inappropriate student behavior.
All educational professionals working with children must be committed to the belief that they are responsible for creating and maintaining a safe school environment for every child entrusted to their care. This is a proposition that I embrace and promote in my own work as an educator. The Attic’s message is one that is important for all of us in schools to fully support. Every person, whether a young person or an adult, should feel comfortable to say” “It’s OK to Be Me”.
The following piece was cross-posted in the Philadelphia School Notebook and City School Stories on October 26, 2010. It is a message that I believe is worth repeating over and over again, until the day comes when schools are a safe place for all LGBT youth.
MAKE IT BETTER IN SCHOOLS RIGHT NOW
Submitted by Frank Murphy, Oct. 26, 2010
Asher Brown recently committed suicide. He was thirteen 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 only 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 the interactions of my students with one another. 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 an individual’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 loses 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 published in the Philadelphia School Notebook that describes one student’s disgust at gay-bashing. The participation of many students in national events such as the annual Day of Silence are also signals 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.