Speaking of Women's Rights: What Children Should Be Learning: Reading, ’Riting, and Respect

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

What Children Should Be Learning: Reading, ’Riting, and Respect

Everyone’s buzzing about more bad news involving this country’s youth. Last week, a Massachusetts prosecutor brought criminal charges, including statutory rape, violation of civil rights with bodily injury, harassment, stalking, against nine teens who had harassed and made physical threats against another student, Phoebe Prince, until she hung herself.

This week also marks the one-year anniversary of Carl Walker-Hoover’s suicide – an 11-year-old who ended his life after enduring constant bullying, including being called “gay” and “faggot” (even though he didn't identify as gay).

I’m saddened to think of the pain these individuals and their families endured. But I’m also troubled by what kind of grownups the kids who did the bullying may become – and what it means for all of us.

Because being grown up is certainly no cure for bullying. One need look no further than the health care reform “debate,” in which supposedly “adult” discourse sank to new lows, all in the name of politics. Just this week, federal prosecutors filed charges against a Yakima man who threatened to kill U.S. Senator Patty Murray over her support of the health care legislation. Elsewhere, opponents of reform harassed, spit at, and made death threats against congressmen including African-Americans John Lewis and Emanuel Cleaver and Barney Frank, who is openly gay. And none of these three legislators was even a major player in the health care debate.

Frank Rich makes the interesting and compelling case in his piece, The Rage Is Not About Health Care, that this surge of anger is not in fact issue-specific, but really about a fear of “others” taking over. Rich notes, for example, that non-white births are on the verge of becoming the majority in the U.S. By 2042, “minorities” will outnumber whites in the U.S., according to a U.S. Census bureau report.

To me, it all boils down to this: we need respectful interaction with others, regardless of differences in background or viewpoint. Perhaps it seems a leap to link schoolyard bullying to Tea Party, Glenn Beck-style, anti-government activism. But who would have expected bullying to result in deaths, either?

Strengthening anti-bullying laws is not the only answer to preventing additional tragedies – and certainly may not have a measurably causal effect on political discourse – but it is a start. Some positive news on this front, for a change – two new Washington laws (which Legal Voice supported) and a pending federal bill will add to students’ protections from bullying, harassment and discrimination.

  • HB 2801 builds on a 2002 law that required schools to adopt policies prohibiting harassment, intimidation, and bullying. The new law requires the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) to revise and update a model anti-harassment policy. By 2011, school districts must amend their policies to incorporate the model OSPI policy. Schools also must designate one person as the primary contact regarding the policy to receive copies of all complaints and responsible for implementing the policy.

  • Another new law, HB 3026, expressly prohibits discrimination in public education on the basis of race, creed, religion, color, national origin, veteran/military status, disability, and sexual orientation (including gender identity and expression), adding to existing prohibitions on sex discrimination in schools. The law gives OSPI authority to make rules to eliminate such discrimination and to monitor and enforce compliance with the law. (The only catch? The bill will be null and void unless it is funded in the state budget.)

  • A federal anti-bullying bill, the Safe Schools Improvement Act, is also in the works. In memory of Carl Walker-Hoover, the boy who died a year ago, his mother and the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network have launched a petition and call to action in support of the federal bill.
We should all support laws like these that will help teach kids what respect looks like - and will help keep them safe. For Phoebe, for Carl, and for all of us.