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Plight of Gay teen moves school to act
Plight of Gay teen moves school to act
by Carrie Cassidy - Special to the SGN

Few days went by without his being punched, kicked or tripped by classmates at Susquehanna Twp. High School in Dauphin County, PA.

The teenager, an openly Gay boy described by friends as kind and compassionate, said he was constantly harassed, though he never reported it to anyone, not even his friends.

Finally, when classmates told him to "go kill himself" to "make the world a better place," the teen decided he'd had enough. He said he left school in the middle of his senior year because he could no longer bear the torment.

His departure inspired a petition by about 300 of his classmates calling for district administrators to prevent the same thing from happening to others. District officials are listening.

After talking extensively with the boy, his mother and an advocate for the family and with the school's Gay-Straight Alliance group, Superintendent David Volkman put together a group to examine everything from the teaching of tolerance to changing policies.

The 15-member group - composed of Volkman, high school Principal Judy Baumgardner, a community member, students, teachers, parents and the boy's mother - will meet next month and make recommendations to the school board in March.

"I think the petition ... speaks volumes about this student and about the majority of students in this school," Volkman said. "This is a pretty big issue, and it's an important one that we need to start talking about."

The harassment of a Gay student is the first reported at Susquehanna in recent years, but it is not unusual at high schools nationwide.

Figures from Gay-rights groups show about 40% of the nation's estimated 750,000 Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender high school students have reported being verbally or physically assaulted in high school.

Michelle Simmons, executive director of Common Roads, a support group for Gay and Transgender high school and college students, said the abuse ranges from harassment to physical attacks.

About one-third to one-half of the reported abuse involves beatings of some sort, Simmons said.

The repeated harassment can be more than teenagers can handle, she said. "If these teenagers don't have a strong social and support network, they can be dangerously isolated."

Jim Wheeler's life tells what can happen to an openly Gay student who feels alone.

Wheeler, whose story has become a rallying point for the issues facing Gay teens, killed himself at 19, months after he graduated from Cedar Crest High School in Lebanon County.

No one knew of the torment he suffered until after his suicide in 1997, when his mother read the stories and poems he had written.

After Wheeler's death, Cedar Crest started a support group for Gay teens and others dealing with diversity issues. Susquehanna, Carlisle and Cedar Cliff are among the midstate's high schools that also have Gay Straight Alliance chapters.

Having a support group is a good start, but Simmons said other steps are needed.

Schools must provide training for the entire staff, including cafeteria workers and bus drivers, to recognize signs of bullying and know how to intervene appropriately, Simmons said.

Enforcement of anti-bullying policies is also important, she added.

She said Susquehanna has made steps in the right direction.

Volkman said offenders can be suspended or even expelled, but that won't happen in this case. Like Wheeler, the high school senior never reported the abuse and refused to identify those who harassed him.

Meanwhile, administrators developed a plan for him to graduate that was acceptable to his family and to the boy, and he will be able to attend the prom and graduate. But Volkman said he knows the student is missing out.

"He's not going through the rites of passages that his classmates are going through, and that's a shame," he said. To keep this from happening again, he said, "People need to be compassionate, caring and accepting. That's one of the best lessons we can teach people."

Courtesy of The Patriot-News

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