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Language in bullying policies stirs debate

Sara Preston remembers the three-year battle before the North Carolina General Assembly passed the School Violence Prevention Act in June of 2009.

The law requires the state’s public schools to adopt policies banning students from bullying and harassing their classmates for, among other things, their race, religion, ethnicity and sexual orientation.

“Sexual orientation ended up becoming the biggest issue with the bill because it was the most controversial,” said Preston, policy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina in Raleigh.

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Bullying, particularly of gays, has been thrust to the national forefront recently after several teenage suicides were linked to anti-gay harassment. In particular, the September suicide of Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi has garnered widespread media coverage.

In Mecklenburg County, reports indicate that bullying is a growing problem for some age groups at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

According to the 2009 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 52 percent of CMS middle school students have been a victim of teasing or name-calling, and 39 percent reported being bullied on school property, up from 26 percent two years earlier. Although reports of bullying for high school students declined to 16 percent in 2009 from 20 percent in 2007, 45 percent of students agreed that bullying is a problem at their school, compared with 40 percent in 2007.

“Bullying is insidious and increasingly prevalent,” said Libby Safrit, executive director of Teen Health Connection, a Charlotte nonprofit that provides physical and mental health care as well as health education and community outreach for people ages 11 through 22. “You can’t very well talk to an adolescent about their health if you don’t talk about bullying. It’s a real part of their world.”

Safrit said she’s heard from a growing number of adolescents who complain of being bullied. “It’s definitely gotten worse,” she said. “It’s become part of the culture. People are ridiculed on TV commercials, and now, because of technology, you have this anonymous venue for cyberbullying, like texting, cell phone pictures, Facebook and Twitter.”

This month, several Mecklenburg County organizations, including Time Out Youth, the Jewish Community Center and Crossroads Charlotte, hosted an event to discuss the impact of bullying on the teenage LGBT  — lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender — community.

State law commended

Steve Bentley, executive director of Time Out Youth, said anti-bullying polices are most effective when they identify individual groups. The LGBT community is particularly vulnerable to bullying, he said.

“Bullying should not be tolerated for any reason,” he said. “But what we know is that in many circles it’s still OK to direct derogatory comments toward people in the LGBT community. And they often don’t report harassment and abuse over the fear of retaliation or that nothing will be done about it.”

Bentley commends the state law. He also applauds CMS for being “ahead of the curve” when, prior to the passage of the School Violence Prevention Act, it adopted an anti-bullying policy in 2008 that included specific categories such as “sexual orientation” and “gender identity or expression.”

“It’s a good first step in working towards acceptance and tolerance,” Bentley said.

But not everyone sees it that way. During previous attempts to pass the act, the North Carolina Senate stripped away all of the specific categories from the House version of the bill and sent it back, Preston said, while some religious conservative groups also objected to the bill’s mentioning of groups based on sexual orientation.

“We obviously wanted to balance free speech rights with providing kids with a safe learning environment,” Preston said. “And having enumerated categories helps administrators and officials recognize people who may have been left out of enforceable polices. But there were plenty of people who would have supported the bill but didn’t because of the categories.”

CMS opposition

CMS also ran into opposition when it passed its anti-bullying policy in March 2008. The policy addresses bullying based on nearly two dozen criteria, including sexual orientation and gender identity.

“There were some very outspoken people who said it was a gay agenda,” said Deb Kaclik, CMS director of arts, health and physical education and prekindergarten through 12th-grade curriculum-support programs, which includes bullying-prevention. “But it was for the protection of all students and to help make CMS a safe place.”

But the North Carolina Family Council in Raleigh didn’t see it that way, as it objected to the state law and the CMS anti-bullying policies. Staff attorney Jere Royall said that while all children need to be protected, by including categories such as “sexual orientation” and “gender identity,” anti-bullying policies communicate the wrong message.

“It affirms behaviors that many people understand to be harmful physically, psychologically and spiritually,” he said. “The language could actually create a situation where on one hand you’re trying to discourage harmful behavior to children through bullying, while at the same time you’re condoning behavior that’s harmful to children.”

Raleigh-based Christian Action League of North Carolina also objected to the CMS policy and state law. The Rev. Mark Creech, the group’s executive director, wrote on the organization’s website that the state bill was a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” that was championed by “pro-homosexual influences” and “elevated sexual orientation to the same levels as race, gender, physical appearance and mental, physical or sensory disability.”

Taking a more middle-of-the road approach to anti-bullying policies is Judy Kuczynski, Minnesota-based president of Bully Police USA, a watchdog organization that advocates for bullied children and state anti-bullying laws.

“We believe that it is better to identify what bullying behavior is rather than try to describe or define a victim group,” she said. “Bullying is about what’s wrong with the bully, not what’s wrong with the victim.”

Kuczynski said she doesn’t like to see vocabulary in anti-bullying policies that singles out one group because it’s an excuse for certain groups not to support anti-bullying measures.”

“A good law is not going to define or describe victims,” she said. “It’s going to define and describe the behavior. But any law that defines anti-bullying is better than nothing, because it admits that it’s a problem and gets people talking about it.”

Cases rise

While she didn’t have specific numbers, Kaclik said that immediately following the implementation of the new CMS bullying policies in 2008 there was a drop in the number of bullying cases reported. But over the past year the number of cases has increased.

“We attribute that to the fact that there’s more awareness now,” she said.

Kaclik said that with the recent teen suicides raising awareness of bullying, CMS is revisiting its anti-bullying policies, focusing on better educating school staff as well as parents.

“We’re trying to hone in on getting guidelines that people will follow as standard practice,” she said. “If a child is being bullied and an adult overhears a derogatory term, we need to be able to address it in a timely fashion no matter what our personal values may be. That’s the message we need to send.”

CMS is hosting a series of discussion groups and meetings for parents, students, staff members and neighborhood leaders to address the issues of bullying and discrimination. The next meeting is scheduled for 6:30 to 8 p.m. Nov. 3. at Assurance United Methodist Church, 970 Mt. Holly-Huntersville Road.

“We’re delving into the behavior itself, and look at the sequential elevation of bullying,” Kaclik said. “It’s important to recognize and correct bullying behaviors when kids are young. It’s a culture change, and it’s going to take time.”

Sam Boykin can be reached at sam.boykin@mecktimes.com.

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