Russell Dickerson III says junior high school and high school were the worst six years of his life. Many of us might say the same thing, but our reasons probably pale in comparison to his.
Dickerson, 19, says the bullying began in 2003 at Miller Junior High School in Aberdeen and continued until he graduated from Aberdeen High School in 2009. In one instance, he says, classmates pushed him to the floor and smashed a raw egg on his head. He says students created a website mocking him and his perceived sexual orientation. Dickerson was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder at age 14 and says he still suffers emotional and psychological problems. “The damage that has been done to my son is irreparable,” his father, Russell Dickerson Jr., says.
Last December, Dickerson sued the Aberdeen School District for failing to protect him from “severe and pervasive” bullying and physical harassment over his race (he is African-American) and his perceived sexual orientation. (Dickerson does not say if he is gay.) “When I walked through the doors my first day of middle school, it was like a prison sentence that carried on through high school,” Dickerson said at a news conference to announce the lawsuit, filed on his behalf in U.S. District Court by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington. It alleges that persistent bullying occurred partly because Dickerson “did not fit gender stereotypes for a young man and was perceived to be gay.” Dickerson recalled, “Unlike the typical reasons of not wanting to go to school—homework, tests, due dates—I found myself dreading school because I did not know how I was going to be physically harassed, racially harassed or sexually harassed that day, or by whom, the thought of being called a ‘faggot’ or the ‘N word,’ being touched in very uncomfortable ways by other people.”
Dickerson survived his bullying ordeal, but other stories like his have ended tragically. Last year alone, more than a dozen young people across the country, including a boy from Graham, Washington, committed suicide because the relentless taunts, intimidation and physical abuse were too much to bear. At least eight of the suicides—or “bullycides,” as many now call them—occurred within days of each other last September. These repeated occurrences have ignited debate among activists, parents, teachers, administrators and politicians over how best to protect gay youth, those perceived to be gay and peers who defend them. In 2010, local legislators acknowledged the severity of the issue and made improvements to Washington state’s anti-bullying law, which since 2002 has explicitly protected gay and lesbian students from harassment and required every public school to have a policy to deal with bullying.
Last year, Seattle Public Schools introduced an anti-bullying curriculum that covers the dangers of cyberbullying, strives to build empathy and understanding, teaches online safety skills and equips young people with strategies to reject bullying. The Seattle district also is updating its Family, Life and Student Health (FLASH) curriculum to be more inclusive of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth, says Beth Reis, a Public Health–Seattle & King County educator who developed the original material. It is taught in grades 4 through 12 in about one in five school districts throughout Washington state, as well as nationally and internationally.
Not everyone agrees that gay-sensitive behavior should be taught in school. Chris Barnhart, a Seattle-based gay conservative blogger, is wary of any curriculum “that overemphasizes identity politics.” Gay youth must be raised as functioning members of society, not as victims, he says. “Highlighting differences can be a positive thing, but when we focus on those differences, we’re sometimes reinforcing them, not creating unity or a working diversity. America is a melting pot, but when we become too entrenched in identity politics, we’re chopping up all the ingredients and failing to turn on the stove.”
Nevertheless, it is generally accepted that education is imperative in counteracting the academic and social consequences of bullying. Portland-based children’s author Trudy Ludwig, who has written several books on bullying, says proactive measures have to start at an early age, especially to reach children who are afraid to report bullying. “Some kids,” she says, “would rather be punched in the stomach than have their reputation tarnished or be the social pariah on the school playground.”
These social and cultural pressures can be devastating to gay teens, says Seattle-based sex columnist Dan Savage, who grew up in a Catholic family that was slow to accept his homosexuality. He admits contemplating suicide as a child. “I thought it would be easier for my parents to have a dead kid than a gay kid,” he says. Savage believes school administrators should be held legally accountable for addressing bullying. Many school districts are rethinking their anti-bullying programs and health education classes to include discussion of sexual orientation and tolerance. No doubt many have been influenced by logging on to “It Gets Better,” the YouTube channel (youtube.com/itgetsbetterproject) Savage created last year with his partner, Terry Miller, after Billy Lucas, a 15-year-old high school student in Indiana, hung himself after classmates repeatedly taunted him for his perceived sexual orientation. The project, which has had millions of viewings, features more than 9,000 videos of gay and straight adults (including President Obama) talking about bullying and emphasizing that the torment tends to subside after graduation.
But telling people it eventually gets better doesn’t obviate the need to eliminate the problem altogether. Dickerson and the ACLU hope their lawsuit will shine a brighter spotlight on something that is clearly not an isolated incident: State officials say nearly 12,000 students were suspended for bullying in the 2009–10 school year alone. The Seattle-based Safe Schools Coalition, an international partnership among 65 agencies and 100 private individuals, has documented hundreds of chilling incidents of violence against gay and lesbian students, including the tearing off of clothes and serious beatings, with some victims reported to be as young as 10 years old. The group warns educators that it’s not enough to stop bullying behavior in schools; they need to teach students about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and about all types of bias, whether it is based on race, religion, disability, gender, country of origin, sexual orientation or gender expression.
“It’s vitally important for schools to talk about suicide and bullying,” says Reis, a cochair of the Safe Schools Coalition. “It’s equally important for schools to dispel myths and stereotypes about LGBT people. The silence of adults is perceived as condoning the harassment of peers, and it contributes to students’ feelings of isolation and their likelihood of committing suicide.”
“It all comes down to building a culture of respect,” says Sandy Smelser, an elementary school counselor with the Snoqualmie School District. “Teaching respect for differences equips bystanders to help others by being unwilling to tolerate bullying behavior.”
More and more gay kids are finding refuge in the place where they are bullied: at school. In most Seattle high schools and many of its middle schools, Gay/Straight Alliance (GSA) clubs offer a place to raise awareness and promote tolerance of different sexualities and gender identities. Garfield High School has one of the oldest and most active GSA organizations in the district—about 25 students, gay and straight, who meet with advisers over lunch each Wednesday. They sponsor gay awareness events, such as freshman forums on human sexuality. The group is also creating a “How Can We Make It Better Now?” video to post on “It Gets Better.” It will likely focus on face-to-face harassment in addition to cyberbullying.
“Social networking has added a whole new dimension,” says Rosie Moore, a mental health counselor at Garfield and longtime adviser to the GSA club. “Kids used to be able to go home and recover, but now there’s no respite from it.”
Savage cautions, however, that “home, sweet home” often puts up barriers between kids who are being bullied and gay adults who may be able to offer valuable counsel and insight. “Many of these kids have homophobic parents who believe they can prevent their gay children from growing up to be gay—or from ever coming out—by depriving them of information, resources and positive role models,” he says.
“The reality is that those teachers who are interested and motivated by this are making the effort to have something broader and inclusive in their classrooms,” says Lisa Love, a health education specialist for Seattle Public Schools. But interest and motivation can only go so far. Gabi Clayton, an Olympia mental health counselor and anti-bullying activist who lost her gay son, Bill, to suicide in 1995, says, “It didn’t matter to Bill that he had a lot of support, because he was in post-traumatic stress and he believed he would never be safe in this world.”
Dickerson, whose family supports his lawsuit, understands completely. “It is disheartening to hear, almost daily, that someone else has become a victim of school harassment, for whatever reason,” he says. “I am hopeful that another vocal story will bring about change.”
Ludwig, the Portland author, remains convinced that stories like Clayton’s and Dickerson’s can have happier outcomes through vigorous educational initiatives, because bullying is basically a learned behavior. “No child is born a bully,” she says. “They can learn it at home, in their neighborhood or at school. But it can also be unlearned.”
Clearly, there are administrators, teachers and parents eager to make that occur. “Districts around Washington have recognized school-based bullying as an urgent problem in need of attention,” declares a PTA/Safe Schools Coalition report. What may still be unrecognized is how many bullycides it takes take to comprehend the meaning of “urgent.”