What in the world is going on?
In the month of September alone, there have been at least four teens in the US who were teased and humiliated to the point of suicide - apparently because they were gay or perceived as gay by their peers.
The most recent was 18-year-old Tyler Clementi, a student at Rutgers University in New Jersey; his young life, so full of promise, senselessly cut short when he was “outed” on the internet and subsequently jumped off the George Washington Bridge into the Hudson River 600 feet below and died.
The others were even younger: 13-year-old Seth Walsh in California, 13-year-old Asher Brown in Texas, and 15-year-old Billy Lucas in Indiana.
Last year, an 11-year-old in Massachusetts hanged himself with an extension cord after being bullied by classmates who thought he was gay. An 11-year-old?
Certainly we have to look carefully at the data and determine whether these deaths are a coincidental blip or a disturbing trend. Whenever the media or politicians latch onto a story and run with it there’s always concern for knee-jerk reactions and unintended consequences.
Nevertheless, even one senseless, preventable teen-age death is a tragedy, so hopefully the light that mainstream media is shining on the issue will raise awareness and prompt schools and other institutions with influence to take action.
Schools, in particular, simply cannot ignore the issue. The consequences are too tragic.
Fortunately, there are quality resources available to schools, like the Southern Poverty Law Center's "Teaching Tolerance" program which provides free curriculum and other tools for teachers.
And hopefully all the media attention will spur meaningful dialogue in living rooms and kitchen tables across the country among parents and their children, gay and straight.
Parents need to understand that values such as sympathy, compassion, understanding and acceptance are primarily learned and reinforced in the home, mostly through modeling. As grownups, we have to show children with our actions what it means to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. As role models, we have to behave better ourselves.
I’ll be honest. As the father of two little girls, I’m terrified. Right now, they seem safe and secure in the cocoon of a wonderfully nurturing humanities elementary school in a particularly progressive college town. But time marches on and I know that middle and high school may be a different story. Being a parent isn’t easy these days. It’s even harder being a kid these days. And so much harder still if you are perceived as somehow “different” among your classmates.
According to a survey by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), nearly nine of out 10 students who identify themselves as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender experienced harassment in the past year – a rate three times higher than students in general.
What’s so disappointing to me is this: I thought we would be further along in our evolution by now.
I remember thinking last year when my then first grade daughter spoke nonchalantly in passing about a classmate with two fathers, how the times they were (finally) changing. When instinctively she described the African-American classmate as the one with the bright orange dress instead of identifying her by skin color, it reaffirmed my hope for a color-blind future.
I thought bigotry, hatred, prejudice, intolerance… would soon be obsolete, destined for the junk heap along with rotary telephones and manual typewriters. Open-mindedness and tolerance seem much more consistent with the iPad generation.
If the findings in a recent study by the University of Michigan are factual, I may be wrong.
The report suggests that college students today are significantly less empathetic than their peers from 30 years ago. The researchers speculated that overexposure to media has desensitized an entire generation.
So, it looks like we still have a lot of work ahead of us. October is National Bullying Prevention Month. Seems like a good time to get started.
Below are some resources that might be helpful:
"Teaching Tolerance” is project of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Alabama (www.splcenter.org) that provides free anti-bias resources to schools and other groups (www.tolerance.org)
The Trevor Project (866) 4U TREVOR is a 24-hour national help line for gay and questioning teens.
Angels and Doves is a nation-wide anti-bullying non-profit organization (www.angelsanddoves.com)
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