Sunday, January 15, 2006

Executive Director of GLSEN calls on North Carolina schools to adopt better policies

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"Students shouldn't be scared to go to school. It's time we passed the policies they need to let them know that we won't tolerate bullying and harassment, of any kind, ever. Then students in Winston-Salem/Forsyth County and throughout the state can focus on their learning, not their safety."
Below is a guest column written by Kevin Jennings, Executive Director of the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network and native of Winston-Salem, NC. The guest column was published in The Winston-Salem Journal on Saturday, January 14, 2006:
Harassment alive in Tarheel schools Comprehensive policies needed to stop bullies, make students feel safe By Kevin Jennings GUEST COLUMNIST I remember the 10 years I spent in North Carolina public schools as the unhappiest decade of my life. As a student in Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools in the 1970s, I was routinely verbally and physically harassed because I was "different." Usually I suffered in silence, but on the rare occasion when I approached school authorities, they did nothing - which only accentuated my sense of isolation and vulnerability. I'd like to think things are better today, but new data suggests that these problems persist. A recent report, From Teasing to Torment: School Climate in North Carolina (researched by the Harris Poll organization and commissioned by the organization I head, GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian,and Straight Education Network), found that bullying and harassment are still prevalent in North Carolina schools. In fact, nearly half (48 percent) of all North Carolina students thought that bullying was a "somewhat" or serious problem in their schools, and only 38 percent reported feeling very safe in school. This is troubling because, in GLSEN's 2003 National School Climate Survey, we found that students who were frequently harassed had grade-point averages a full letter grade below those of their peers who were not. They were also more than twice as likely to say they did not plan to go on to college. It's pretty basic: If you're worrying about getting bullied or harassed, you won't be worrying about your next test or doing your homework. Sometimes we know such problems exist but want to imagine that they are somewhere else. The Harris report shows otherwise. Bullying, name-calling and harassment based on appearance, actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender expression occurred frequently in North Carolina schools. Eight out of 10 North Carolina students reported that people at their school were harassed because of looks or body size; seven out of 10 said students were harassed because they were or were thought to be lesbian, gay or bisexual; and three out of four said students were harassed because of the way they expressed their gender. It's not just a problem somewhere else: It's a problem in the Tarheel State. Schools can take actions to change this, however. One thing that makes a big difference is having a supportive teacher. GLSEN's 2003 National School Climate Survey also found that, when students can identify a supportive teacher, their grade point averages improve. But far too often, students don't see teachers as supportive people to turn to when bullying and harassment occur. And according to the report, 48 percent of those harassed say they told school personnel some of the time, and only 10 percent reported incidents of harassment most or all of the time. We need to make sure that students feel comfortable talking about such incidents to their teachers, and that teachers have the training they need to respond more effectively when such behavior occurs. Training is extremely important, since it can help teachers and other staff know how to respond to various types of bullying and harassment. It can also help staff be more understanding of the needs of all students. But in recent months, the N.C. Family Policy Council has lobbied against including training on sexual-orientation issues for school counselors and social workers in the training-upgrade process for school personnel that occurs every seven years. This proves that some people are always willing to put their own political agenda ahead of what we know works for our kids. The Harris report also tells us that good school policy can make a difference. When schools put in place comprehensive anti-bullying/anti-harassment policies that include such categories as religion, race and sexual orientation, students report that bullying is much less likely to be a problem. Unfortunately, fewer than half (44 percent) of North Carolina respondents reported that they were protected by inclusive school policies, and Winston-Salem/Forsyth County, as well as the state of North Carolina, lacks one as a whole. In June 2004, after extensive research, the N.C. Department of Public Instruction's Division of School Improvement proposed a comprehensive policy to the N.C. State Board of Education. However, the board of education removed the specific categories that make bullying less likely to be a problem and passed a generic anti-bullying, harassment and discrimination policy. Some North Carolina counties (Guilford, Stokes, Surry, Yadkin and Craven) and cities (Thomasville, Chapel Hill-Carrboro) have retained the specific categories of the original policy proposed by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction's Division of School Improvement. The Winston-Salem/Forsyth County system has not. Since we know the importance of these policies, the question we must to ask is, why does Winston-Salem/Forsyth County - and the state of North Carolina as a whole - not have one? That's a question every citizen should be asking the school board and state legislature. Students shouldn't be scared to go to school. It's time we passed the policies they need to let them know that we won't tolerate bullying and harassment, of any kind, ever. Then students in Winston-Salem/Forsyth County and throughout the state can focus on their learning, not their safety. • Kevin Jennings is founder and executive director of GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. He is from Winston-Salem and lives in New York City.
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