Local summit to address teen bullying
As the issue of teen bullying continues to capture the nation’s attention, local Bay Area teens are planning a daylong summit to address how students, teachers and parents can help solve the problem.
The conference is being hosted next weekend by the Aragon High School Gay Straight Alliance in San Mateo. The student group’s president, Jason Galisatus, was inspired to organize the summit after attending the GLSEN Respect Awards in Los Angeles last year.
There he met Minnesota resident Tammy Aaberg, whose son Justin died by suicide last July after being bullied because he was gay. Aaberg has since become a vocal advocate for passage of laws strengthening anti-discrimination protections for LGBT youth.
"Her story was incredibly inspiring and I felt like I needed to do something about it," said Galisatus, 17, who is a senior. "I wanted to get the local GSAs together and then it expanded to bring all of the Bay Area together to fight bullying in our schools."
Even in the liberal Bay Area anti-gay bullying on school campuses is an issue, said Galisatus. While he was only bullied once during his sophomore year, when five other students surrounded him and yelled, "faggot," Galisatus said he deals with reports of similar incidents happening to his fellow classmates every few months.
"It is not perfect and there is a lot of room for improvement. There is still a lot of bullying that still happens," he said. "Improvement needs to happen at the student level. They need to understand saying ’That’s so gay’ isn’t acceptable.
"Teachers need to understand when they hear ’That’s so gay’ or ’faggot’ they need to intervene immediately. That is the goal of the summit," he added.
According to the 2009 National School Climate Survey, based on the responses of 7,000 LGBT middle and high school students over a 10-year period, eight in 10 had been verbally harassed at school while four in ten had been physically harassed. The data also showed that six in ten felt unsafe at school and that one in five had been the victim of a physical assault at school.
Matthew Thompson, 17, the GSA president at Burlingame High School, said most of the time anti-gay bullying has nothing to do with a students’ sexual orientation but occurs because they do not conform to traditional notions of gender identity.
"The primary issue with the bullying is not necessarily about people coming out. A lot of it is people still have issues, including in more liberal areas, with people who are gender non-conforming. That goes beyond sexuality in general," said Thompson, who is on the planning committee for the local youth summit. "From an early age people get teased about that all the time and parents are worrying about that."
The summit, which takes place Saturday, April 23, mirrors the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network’s annual Safe Schools Advocacy Summit. The third one took place in March and, along with guest speakers, featured education on federal legislation aimed at protecting LGBT youth. One bill, the Safe Schools Improvement Act, would require schools to implement comprehensive anti-bullying policies that include enumerated characteristics of students most often targeted, such as race, religion, sexual orientation and gender identity.
Last month the Gay-Straight Alliance Network and Community Link, an LGBT nonprofit, hosted a one-day conference in Fresno that addressed student safety and bullying in Central Valley schools.
The gatherings are important, note researchers, because the problem of bullying, whether of LGBT or straight students, cannot be eradicated merely by the passage of laws or adoption of more stringent regulations.
"Attitudes cannot be legislated away, and it takes a school and a community, working together, to change them and to change the culture in the school. But there is hope on the horizon and there are positive steps being taken to address this issue," write Derry L. Stufft, of the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, and Colleen M. Graff, with the University of Scranton, in their article "Increasing Visibility for LGBTQ Students: What Schools Can Do To Create Inclusive Classroom Communities," published this year in the journal Current Issues in Education.
The authors note that while schools are increasingly cognizant of the fact their campus populations are diverse and there is a need for "bully-free zones," many do not take "the time to address the subtle bullying of LGBTQ students and faculty."