Gender, sexuality & school safety

Hate-crimes and "bullycide" in schools: updates on recent cases

Posted Jul 19, 2009

On July 9, the Ventura County, (CA) District Attorney offered a plea deal to 15 year old Brandon McInerney. This deal allows McInerney to plead guilty for shooting and killing classmate Larry King, in exchange for a reduced sentence. The shooting took place in the computer classroom of their junior high school on February 12, 2008 after Larry had asked him to be his valentine. Larry was known in his school not only for being openly gay, but for also wearing high heels, nail polish and make-up. 

In April 2009, two young men in different states: Carl Walker-Hoover and Jaheem Harrera (both age 11) committed suicide. Their parents and friends say both deaths were directly linked to the bullying and homophobic harassment they experienced at school. Neither boy identified as gay and both were clearly extremely hurt by the anti-gay taunts. These tragic incidents are a few of the more extreme examples of why it is important to understand gender and sexual diversity and how they impact school safety.

Many parents and students are taking action to change the hostile climates of their schools. On July 8, Sirdeaner Walker, Carl's mom, testified before a Congressional subcommittee to urge the passage of the Safe Schools Improvement Act, a federal anti-bullying bill. Educators, counsellors, social workers, parents, and youth need more information and resources about how to address verbal, physical and psychological acts of violence that are influenced by gender and sexuality. Gender and sexuality are important forces in shaping behaviors and inform how we interact with each other and understand ourselves. Unfortunately, the role gender and sexuality play in many incidents of school violence is often overlooked or accepted as normal which allows the problem to persist. This blog intends to explore these issues by providing a new lens for understanding gender and sexual diversity in schools. It is also important to note that the victims in each of these incidents were young men of color.  I feel it is necessary to point this out because there is a persistent misconception that discussions of gender and sexuality don't relate to issues of race and ethnicity, and I hope to dispel this perception through discussions here.  Issues of gender and sexuality impact us all, but they do impact us differently based on our age, body size, race, ethnicity, social class, religion and physical dis/ability.  All of these issues are relevant to these discussions and although gender and sexuality will be the primary focus of this blog, I can't discuss these topics without addressing other related aspects of identity and culture.

As a former high school teacher, I remember how helpless I felt to assist students who turned to me for support in the face of harassment. During my first year of teaching, I had one student come to me on a regular basis who confided in me about all of the taunts and harassment she was enduring. I could see the impacts it was having on her health and academic performance, but I didn't know how to help. I offered her individual support but couldn't get other teachers or the administration to address it in a systematic or meaningful way. Everyone seemed to accept sexual harassment and homophobic insults as part of the school culture, and my efforts to work against it were met with extreme resistance and inertia. In my second teaching job, things weren't much better. Gay students were stalked and made fun of, female students were sexually harassed by male peers, and words like "fag," "bitch," and "dyke" were commonly used by students to insult and mock each other. Few of my colleagues or administrators were willing to take clear steps to stop these behaviors. Although I made attempts to engage colleagues in dialogue, worked with the administration to raise their awareness, and attended workshops to expand my understanding of the problem, none of it seemed to have an impact. I was just one classroom teacher and not an "expert" on the issue. The head of school told me he would need more time and information before he took any specific actions to address the problem.

After teaching in high school classrooms for five years, I was frustrated with the institutional inaction on these issues and decided to return to graduate school to learn how to help schools address these issues more proactively. I had to become the expert they were looking for in order to help address the problem. I have recently published a book on this topic called, [amazon 0807749532]. It was written to help professional educators, counsellors, community workers, parents and other youth advocates to better understand these issues and how to approach initiating change in their schools and communities. This blog will explore current issues related to gender and sexual diversity in schools. I hope you'll comment and stop by often!