School. It’s a place of nurturing, a place where our young people go to learn and to develop both academic and social skills that will equip them for the rest of their lives. But for many children, their time at school will be blighted by bullying, whether physical or emotional, and the consequences of that can be devastating. As we have seen in the past few months, for lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) children in particular, such bullying can be fatal when they find only one tragic solution: to take their own lives.
The Safe Schools Improvement Act, as introduced to the House by California Representative Linda Sánchez on May 5th this year, aims to stop this by bringing a federal mandate to schools that receive funding from the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act, compelling them to draw up and implement an anti-bullying policy that must also include protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity/expression, as well as other key categories such as race and religion.
The Safe Schools Improvement Act would provide comprehensive legislation that would set out clear boundaries of acceptable behavior with meaningful ways for teaching staff to address behavior that crosses that boundary.
Importantly for LGBTs, the Safe Schools Improvement Act would also compel both the state and district to document incidents of bullying which would, for the first time, give an overview of the true situation and what types of bullying are prevalent in schools, meaning that more accurate ways to combat such problems could then be devised.
When introducing the Safe Schools Improvement Act to the House, Rep. Linda Sánchez highlighted the need for this important legislation when she said:
“It is time we combat outdated and erroneous beliefs that downplay the seriousness of bullying… bullying is not a harmless “rite of passage” and can no longer be brushed off as child’s play… bullying can cause children to become anxious, fearful, unhappy, and even cause them to be physically sick… three-quarters of all school shooting incidents have been linked to bullying and harassment, and victims of bullying and harassment are more likely to be depressed or suicidal.”
Co-sponsor Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) highlighted why she was heading the bipartisan support for the bill:
“These past few months have seen cruel stories on national television of young children taking their own lives because they could no longer live with the scorn and shame heaped on them at school by other children, causing much justifiable indignation in the communities affected… I urge my colleagues to pass this bill and help the countless children all across our nation who would consider taking their own lives rather than face another day at school. This is not what schools were intended for.”
Eleven-year-old Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover from Massachusetts is one of those tragic cases Rep. Ros-Lehtinen mentions. He hung himself in April this year after enduring months of torturous bullying.
As this GLSEN report documents, Carl never identified as gay himself but was constantly called it. When his mother approached the New Leadership Charter School, Springfield, to deal with the issue, her pleas fell on deaf ears. They had no policy to deal with such taunts. And then it was too late.
Jaheem Herrera, also eleven, is another victim. He returned home after a seemingly normal day at school in April and handed over a glowing report card of As and Bs. By dinner that evening, Jaheem had hung himself in his bedroom because of the taunts he faced daily at school.
“He used to say Mom they keep telling me this … this gay word, this gay, gay, gay. I’m tired of hearing it, they’re telling me the same thing over and over.” Jaheem’s mother told CNN in an interview about Jaheem’s final days. She goes on to say that Jaheem just got “…tired of talking… to teachers, counselors and nobody doing anything — and the best way out is death”.
But it doesn’t have to be. This spate of children taking their own lives due to the physical and emotional bullying they receive for being LGBT, for being black, for their religion or ethnicity, we can put a stop to this.
Support the Safe Schools Improvement Act by signing this Care2 petition and urging congress to support this important legislation. One minute out of your day signing this petition could literally save a young person’s life and give them a future that, right now, they can’t see because of the bullying that they endure on a daily basis. School should be a safe and brilliant experience. Let’s make sure it is.