Last week, Northwestern Massachusetts District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel took action to reverse a terrible trend plaguing families and schools across the country: the rise of "bullicide." Scheibel filed charges against nine high school students at South Hadley High School as a result of the death of Phoebe Prince. Prince, a 15-year-old Irish immigrant, hanged herself after being relentlessly taunted by her classmates. She was harassed online, physically attacked at school and repeatedly called "slut" and "whore" to her face. Her mother claims teachers were aware of her daughter's abuse, but did nothing.
Coincidentally, these charges come as Sirdeaner Walker marks the one-year anniversary of the death of her 11-year-old son, Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover. Last April, Carl like Phoebe, hanged himself. At his Springfield, Mass., middle school—less than 10 miles from South Hadley High School—Carl was called the "f-word" and other anti-gay slurs on a daily basis. It didn't matter that he did not identify as gay, Carl's peers tormented him until he could no longer bear it. Sirdeaner reported the problem to school officials. They told her that teasing was ordinary social interaction that would eventually work itself out over time.
Two young people—one white girl, one black boy—whose short lives ended in suicide. Both linked to the same culprits: Bullying and schools' inability to deal effectively with this nationwide crisis.
According to From Teasing to Torment (PDF), a national survey conducted by Harris Interactive and the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) of 3,400 students ages 13-18, two-thirds (65 percent) reported that they have been verbally or physically harassed or assaulted during the past year because of their perceived or actual appearance, gender, sexual orientation, gender expression, race/ethnicity, disability or religion. The survey also found that 39 percent of students were frequently harassed based on their appearance and 33 percent because they are or are perceived to be lesbian, gay or bisexual.
As we mourn the terrible losses of Phoebe and Carl, we must recommit ourselves to a societal effort to end bullying, once and for all. The specifically sexist and homophobic bullying that Phoebe and Carl experienced is all too common. And evidence shows that school officials often do not act in the face of such unacceptable behavior. Only about a third of students who reported incidents of victimization to school personnel said that staff effectively addressed the problem, according to GLSEN's 2007 National School Climate Survey. More disturbing, nearly two-thirds of students heard homophobic remarks from school personnel.
This must stop.
Schools that take action to address bullying do see results, if they implement two crucial interventions. We need anti-bullying policies that specifically address the myriad forms of societal bias that can fuel some of the most egregious bullying cases, including race and ethnicity, gender, religious affiliations, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, ability, among other distinguishing characteristics found in our diverse society.
There must be staff training to promote timely and even-handed responses to bullying incidents. Comprehensive anti-bullying policies help ensure that the students most at risk are afforded equal access to an education, free from fear and intimidation. Students from schools with a comprehensive policy are 50 percent more likely to feel very safe at school (54 percent vs. 36 percent). Students without such a policy are three times more likely to skip a class because they feel uncomfortable or unsafe (16 percent vs. 5 percent).
We must demand that our schools be places that prepare youth for life in our diverse society, and that the federal government, currently so active on many other education issues, lead the way on this one as well. To honor Carl's memory, Sirdeaner Walker has become an outspoken advocate for the Safe Schools Improvement Act , federal legislation that would make effective anti-bullying policies mandatory in nearly every school in the United States. This is not about criminalizing bullying, or jailing individual offenders as may happen in Massachusetts, but about preventing bullying by building school communities that foster respect for all.
"In the immortal words of U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, 'it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education.' Bias, bullying and harassment currently stand between too many youth and this essential opportunity.
"My son was denied a lifetime of opportunities. I am here to make sure that no other child has to endure what my son went through, and that no other family suffers as mine has."
Now is the time for effective, proactive, educationally appropriate responses to bullying, before another child ends his or her own life. Now is the time to speak to your member of Congress about passing the Safe Schools Improvement Act. Now is the time to speak up for those who can no longer speak for themselves, and to guarantee all of our children a lifetime of opportunity.
Eliza Byard, Ph.D., is the executive director of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, a national education organization working to make schools places where young people learn to value and respect everyone, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity/expression.
Sharon Lettman is the executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, a civil rights organization dedicated to empowering black lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.