A few years back some concerned citizens asked that the hate speech policy at the West Bend High Schools be amended to include hate speech against LBGTQ students. A small firestorm erupted when our local wing of Fundamentalist Christians for a Purer Gay-Free Society protested that this was an infringement on the rights of free speech -- and all the other usual palaver they employ to justify their fears.
The GSA has been kept from getting official club status and, as a result, LGBTQ kids have been deliberately disenfranchised.
Silence, we should remember, is a weapon.
This week's column.
Stand up for those who are bullied
The West Bend Community Memorial Library is hosting a program called Words are Not for Hurting. It's happening at 6:30 p.m. Monday in the City Hall Council Chambers. The topic is bullying in our schools. They’ll be presenting a documentary and a panel discussion.
Like a lot of you, I had a brush with being bullied when I was in seventh grade. The Pep Band was playing at a basketball game (clarinet! -- hey Chris, remember this?) and a couple of tough eighth-graders sat down in our chairs. I told ’em to move. They laughed and said no way. Normally that would have been the end of it -- since I knew better than to antagonize them -- but one of our teachers was standing behind them and shoo’ed them away. I was screwed. Fists were shaken and fingers were poked at me with the promise of violence.
“We’ll find you tomorrow, and you’ll be sorry.”
They were big guys. I was still a wiry little middle schooler a year away from the growth spurt that would, by the end of ninth grade, launch me toward 6 feet.
The next day during lunch period I spotted them waiting at my locker. I turned before they saw me and ran and hid in the bathroom — for about a minute. I was so nervous I broke out in hives, but the situation was inescapable. I took a deep breath and walked down the hall to meet my fate. One of them slapped me pretty hard and they took turns shoving me into the lockers.
Life can be tough when you’re growing up, but I got lucky. Being short made me a target, but I grew out of it. Literally. I eventually got tall and strong and the punks had to stop messing around with me. Ever since then, whenever I see bullying, I can’t let it pass.
Why would anyone?
But what if the thing that makes you a target is something you can’t grow out of ? What if you’re a member of a visible minority? An African, Asian, Hispanic American? What if you’re disabled? What if you’re gay? These aren’t parts of an identity you grow out of — and you shouldn’t. These are parts of an identity you grown into.
Those who were opposed to adding language to the local school harassment policy that would protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students don’t really understand the kind of bullying we’re talking about. They think it’s like my little seventh-grade brush with getting shoved around.
And this is not a conversation about trying to eliminate conflict from the lives of kids. That’s impossible. Everyone is going to skin their knees. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that bullying is the same as kids getting mad at each other. This isn’t about getting into fights or about kids who just plain don’t like each other. Bullying involves two specific components: repeated harmful acts and an imbalance of power. It’s aggression designed to put the bully in a position of power and intimidating control over the kid being bullied. That’s not the same as a dust up over spilled milk. It’s about targeting someone and grinding them down so they won’t get up — to the point where they’ll eventually stop thinking about getting up.
The numbers on bullying have been reported elsewhere, but here are a few of the telltale figures I keep in mind: a 2004 George Washington University study found that one in six kids are the victims of bullying and a 2007 GLSEN survey found that, among LGBT students the number was 86.2 pecent. And just for chilling effect, there’s the 2009 U.S. Department of Justice Community-Oriented Policing Services report which notes that “In two-thirds of recent school shootings (for which the shooter was still alive to report), the attackers had previously been bullied.”
If kids fall down and get hurt, telling them to shake if off and get back into the game is exactly the right thing to say. But if someone repeatedly, deliberately, and maliciously knocks a kid down -- and tells them to stay there -- you can’t tell that kid to shake it off. You have to do whatever you can to make it possible for them to get back up.
You can start by showing up on Monday evening.