Lessons from the True Tolerance website: Discuss sexual orientation

Titles are meant to grab attenion and perhaps that one will for those who have followed the worries of Focus on the Family about bullying prevention programs. Essentially, FOF is concerned that gay activists are using anti-bullying programs to infiltrate schools with political messages. To counter that perceived threat, FOF placed a list of bullying facts on their True Tolerance website. Given my interest and current involvement in bullying prevention, I checked it out. I will have a more extensive look at it next week but for now I wanted to post something I was surprised to see there.

As a reference for the contention that bullying of kids who are gay and perceived to be gay is not a big problem, the fact sheet lists an article from the Newsweek blog. First here is one of the FOF bullet points:

Statistics also indicate that race, ethnicity issues, and even opposite-sex harassment actually account for more bullying problems, than do homosexual-related issues.

As a reference for that factoid, the author of the sheet lists a Newsweek blog article by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, titled, “Does Labeling Bias as “Bullying” Hide the Real Problem?” The authors first describe the case of a young man, Alex Merritt, who allegedly suffered sexual orientation related harassment and then report the research of Stephen Russell on reasons kids report being bullied.

Russell went to public and private schools in California, surveying 235,000 kids in 7th, 9th, and 11th grades. Russell asked each student if he had been bullied within the past 12 months, and if they answer was yes, to describe the incident.

37.4% of the kids said that they had been bullied. 

Then Russell broke that data down by category.

14% of the kids had been bullied because of their race, ethnicity, or national origin. 9.1% of the kids said they’d been bullied because of their religious beliefs, while 10.3% said the bullying was gender-based. Like Alex Merritt, 7.5% said that the torments had been about their sexual-orientation – that includes kids who were actually homosexual, and those just perceived to be gay. Another 4.9% said that they were bullied because of they had a physical or mental disability.

By the end of his data analysis, Russell had concluded that 75% of all bullying came from some type of bias – racial, sexual orientation, religion, etc.

This article is apparently a reference designed to prove that anti-gay bullying is down the list of reasons why kids are picked on. I assume the reason for that point is to make a case that sexual orientation should not be discussed as a means of preventing bullying. However, that is not the message of the article referenced. Based  on the data, the Newsweek authors point out that bias is involved in the lion’s share of the bullying. The authors then raise the possibility that school personnel should be promoting discussions of the factors involved, including sexual orientation.

Dorothy Espelage has been analyzing the curriculum of the anti-bullying programs most commonly used in schools. She found that hardly any of the programs even addressed bullying relating to sexual orientation.

If the majority of bullying is bias-related, and yet we don’t even acknowledge this in anti-bullying programs, what does this mean? In the chapter of our book, excerpted in Newsweek, we presented evidence that demonstrated how many of us have assumed kids are race/color-blind, and thus we don’t need to talk about race with them – however, that leaves kids to their own devices on how they respond to racial and ethnic differences. Perhaps the same pattern is going on in other forms of bias. We think that we as a society are past making fun of people with disabilities, people of different religion or gender, etc. – and thus we don’t actively talk about these issues with our children. And that has inadvertently left the door open for kids to use these differences as the basis of torment. 

The implication is clear: at least in some schools, maybe most, we need to discuss the hidden elephants in the rooms, whether they be race, religion or sexuality. 

Looking again at the numbers, the 7.5% who were bullied due to sexual orientation is staggering. The prevalence of students who are gay or perceived to be gay is probably not much higher than 10-15%. That means a very high percentage of such children are getting harassed. In evaluating the meaning of the numbers it is not sufficient to simply rank order the reasons as FOF has done. One must also consider the prevalence of harassment in that population.

Schools differ and in some ethnicity might be the largest elephant in the room, but I suspect in many districts around the country and probably the corner, kids are being subjected to regular harassment based on real or perceived sexual minority status. In those situations, as this FOF referenced article reminds us, we need to talk about it.