by Anthony Greer -
SGN Contributing Writer
Eighty percent of LGBT students experience verbal assaults, and 45.9% of those students experience it on a daily basis. Between 25% and 44% have experienced physical violence, and almost a quarter of students who have been harassed or attacked at school because someone perceived them to be Gay or Lesbian report having attempted suicide in the past year - a suicide attempt rate more than three times that of their peers.
These are some of the statistics that were discussed at the LGBT Bullying Panel at the University of Washington School of Law on February 22.
With the help of UW law student Gabe Verdugo, the panel was set up and facilitated by UW Law Professor Lisa Kelly and consisted of three speakers: Heather Elise Murphy, a Safe Schools Coalition co-chair and middle school teacher; Jennifer Harris, an education ombudsman; and Linda Mangel, an education equity director with the ACLU of Washington.
The statistics above are courtesy of Murphy, who emphasized that 60% of LGB students don't feel safe at school, that 38.4% of them don't even feel comfortable talking about it, and 79% of these instances go unreported. She also stated that among straights, being called 'Gay' was the most psychologically upsetting form of verbal harassment - moreso than being called fat, stupid, retarded, or any racial slur. Some of her other statistics revealed that 89% of male adolescents between 15-19 consider sex between males 'disgusting,' and 32-66% of LGB youth attempt suicide.
'These kids are being victimized,' Murphy said, 'which is why their suicide rate is so much higher [than their heterosexual peers].'
Murphy suggested that some of the ways to decrease these statistics would be to have more support services, safe settings, an inclusive curriculum, and a Gay-straight alliance.
'I started a GSA at the middle school that I'm at about three years ago, and it's been a really good experience,' Murphy said. 'The students have done phenomenal work.' Some of the projects that her students have done include putting up anti-bullying and anti-harassment posters on their campus. She also noted that 76% of students who attend a GSA say they feel safer.
Harris, the education ombudsman, explained what her job consisted of. The Office of the Education Ombudsman, or OEO, is an agency within the governor's office that was created by the Washington State Legislature in 2006 that is not a part of the education system. Education ombudsmen are trained problem solvers who bring families and educators together to resolve issues while focusing on the best interest of the student. They also have extensive knowledge of the education system and can make recommendations, but don't have authority to force schools or the school district to take specific action.
'We are impartial. We don't advocate for any particular individual, but for fair and equitable processes that support student academic success,' Harris explained.
Harris went on to say that the 2010 legislature passed Substitute House Bill 2801, which called for the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), to create a new model policy for procedure on harassment, which is updated from the original law enacted in 2002. The model procedure has several steps which include bullying prevention, staff intervention, filing incident report forms, addressing the bullying, and granting immunity to the students and those who report the incidents. OSPI's model also allows from a compliance officer to step in and follow a procedure of their own to serve as a mediator for those involved in the incident and help develop a safety plan and keep families in the loop while doing so.
'Twenty-five percent of calls to our office are due to parent concerns about bullying,' Harris said. Sixty-one percent of those calls are complaints about a school's lack of response to a particular incident.
Mangel, the education equity director from the ACLU, explained that having policies and procedures really doesn't do anything when the school staff isn't committed in their heart to enforce them. 'What do we do when all else fails?' she asked. 'Unfortunately, it fails a lot more for LGB students.' She added that staff is 'far more likely' to look the other way and say, 'Boys will be boys.'
When it comes to basic education laws, schools aren't liable for the harassment, but they're responsible for protecting the students that are being harassed. There are two different standards that schools can follow depending on state and federal laws. The first is the 'knew or should've known' standard, where a school should have been aware of the harassment taking place, but wasn't. The second is the 'deliberate indifference' standard, where the school might have known but didn't care to act.
According to the ACLU website, the ACLU-WA believes it is critical that school districts are liable for the harassment of students when they 'knew or should have known' of the harassment but failed to take reasonable action to end the misconduct. 'Knew or should have known' is the standard in federal anti-harassment laws in cases brought by the Federal Office for Civil Rights. Also, it is worth noting that the 'knew or should have known' standard is the accepted standard applied under both Washington state and federal law in cases where employees are the victim of workplace harassment. Parents are protected at work, but students aren't protected in school.
'How crazy is that?' Mangel stated.
Lastly, Mangel mentioned that the 'knew or should have known' standard is the standard articulated under the OSPI, but is not quite the law in Washington state just yet.
The panelists will continue to work toward making schools safe for LGB students, but have a long way to go.
For more information on the Safe Schools Coalition, visit www.safeschoolscoalition.org. For more information on the OEO, visit www.waparentslearn.org. For information on the ACLU, visit www.aclu.org.
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