The 1999 shootings at Columbine High School sparked a widespread safe-schools movement aimed in part against bullying.
The following is an excerpt from an article printed in the Wall Street Journal. Any opinions either stated or suggested are not necessarily those of GLSEN or its members.
By ROBERT TOMSHO
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
February 20, 2003
The 1999 shootings at Columbine High School sparked a widespread safe-schools movement aimed in part against bullying. Now, leaders of the movement complain they are being undercut by religious and conservative groups that oppose efforts to stop one of the most pervasive forms of bullying -- the harassing of students who are, or are perceived to be, gay.
Already, some tolerance and diversity programs have undergone dramatic changes. Public schools in Kentucky's Boyd County recently banned all
student clubs after a support group for gay students formed. Protests from
parents and other community members led the Santa Fe, N.M., school district to overhaul its human-rights curriculum to exclude most mentions of homosexuality. Meanwhile, responding to opposition from a religious advocacy group, the West Virginia attorney general's office in January ended its sponsorship of a state antibullying initiative for schools.
"It boils down to the fact that some people don't believe there should be
any protection for gay people," says 18-year-old Justen Deal, now a freshman at Marshall University, in Huntington, W.Va. He says he was harassed so relentlessly for being gay that he changed schools and eventually quit
Conservative groups say the safe-schools effort has become a vehicle to
promote homosexuality. "I use the word hijacking," says Karen Holgate, a
prominent, Sacramento, Calif., conservative activist. Gay-rights advocates "have very cleverly come in under the guise of something that sounds
wonderful, and they are promoting another agenda."
Budget cuts and academic pressures already have taken a toll on many
violence-prevention initiatives. Some backers fear turmoil over sexual
orientation will spread further to undermine the larger antiviolence
movement, which attracted thousands of schools in the aftermath of the
bloody Columbine shootings in Littleton, Colo. That tragedy was blamed in part on bullying of the perpetrators.
School officials and program advocates say they haven't seen similar objections to discussions of bullying based on race, religion or ethnicity.
"There is often a fear factor when it comes to sexual orientation," says
Caryl Stern, associate national director of the Anti-Defamation League,
which was required by the board of education in one San Diego-area district
to delete most mentions of homosexuality from a tolerance film before it could be shown.
Researchers say harassment of gay students is rampant. Human Rights Watch, a New York-based group, estimates that two million U.S. students a year are bullied because they are, or are thought to be, homosexuals. Meanwhile, more than half of teens surveyed last year by the National Mental Health Association said classmates use terms such as "fag" and "dyke" on a daily basis. "That affects all kids," says Jack Radack, the association's vice president for public education. Research indicates that three of four students targeted for such harassment are straight, he adds.
Educators and advocacy groups in favor of including sexual orientation in
school tolerance programs say that deliberately talking about it is the only way to diffuse and eliminate the related harassment. "When we see that any group is being singled out, we need to break that pattern," says Kevin
Jennings, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education
Network, which promotes gay-straight student alliances.
Some school systems have kept up initiatives related to sexual orientation without sparking major controversy. Michigan's education department trains teachers and other school personnel in ways to protect "sexual minority youth," but only in districts requesting the training. The Cherry Creek School District, near Denver, invites parents to preview its middle-school antibullying curriculum, which lumps sexual orientation in with discussion
of other types of sexual harassment that won't be tolerated. "I don't think
we are talking about morals," says William Porter, who oversees the program.
"I just think we are talking about reasonable behavior."
Some conservative groups maintain that discussing homosexuality in schools makes it more acceptable -- and perhaps opens the door for persecution of students who speak out against it. "We feel it is stigmatizing anyone who holds a traditional moral view that disapproves of homosexuality," says
Peter Sprigg, senior director of culture studies at the Family Research
Council, a Washington, D.C.-based Christian-advocacy group.
The West Virginia Family Foundation last year successfully opposed a state "civil rights team project," after obtaining resource materials distributed to faculty advisers by the state attorney general's office. The material, collected from sources such as teachers unions and civil-liberties groups, included a proposal for forming gay-student support groups and suggested students and teachers consider using words such as "partner" and "lover" instead of "husband" and "wife."
Kevin McCoy, the foundation's president, makes no apologies for an effort that led hundreds of parents to protest to state officials. "This is a pitch for children in public education to accept and embrace the homosexual
lifestyle," he says. "We are not going to stand idly by while our children
Write to Robert Tomsho at firstname.lastname@example.org