This week, the New York Times reported on the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights legislation which has just taken effect in parts of Jersey. Students and teachers alike can report bullies to the police through the anonymous Crimestoppers hotline, and schools themselves must adhere to a set of standards to be overseen by the State Education Department (albeit without any additional funding for programming, training or personnel). Since most schools are strapped for cash, they are tapping high school guidance counselors or social workers to add “bully investigator” to their list of credentials–which may very well include following up on every last complaint about every last schoolyard disagreement and making sure there is a bunch of paperwork filled out to show the state auditors. The anti-bullying law also puts teachers and other school staff on the line for not reporting bullying if it is suspected–which could either be a good classroom management tool or a total disaster.
I applaud state legislators for taking school crimes seriously–after all, high schools in some districts have reached Tijuana-like levels for deadliness. Beyond the physical safety of children is the emotional and psychological well-being, which of course can be compromised by years of playground taunting. What am I saying? I’m showing my age–these days it’s probably more like cyber-taunting and nasty text messages. Regardless, we all want children to be healthy and happy at school, right? Of course we do. Schools should be a safe place.
However, I think the state of New Jersey–and probably the dozens of other states who will be passing or proposing similar legislation in the near future–has wildly missed the mark on this one. The paper reports that (and the legislation specifically mentions) the death of a Rutgers student who tragically committed suicide last year after his roommate secretly recorded him having sex with another man, and then posted the video on the internet. There was a large public outcry, especially since this incident occurred amidst a rash of suicides by queer teens–even teens who did not identify as queer, but were relentlessly bullied on the suspicion of it–and the impetus for anti-bullying laws was born. It’s a good example of public indignation driving social policy shifts; we discussed it briefly in the class I was TAing at the time. I hope that the anti-bullying law in New Jersey does what I think its spirit is meant to do, and that is to prevent any further suicides by children.
But I don’t think it will, and in fact, I think there is probably already a better option in existence for handling a large majority of bullying problems in schools. What I am talking about are Gay Straight Alliances–GSAs. These are awesome, student-led organizations with a faculty sponsor who bring together gay and straight students (as the name implies) to serve as peer educators, peer counselors, and peer dialogue initiators–basically, a squad of fabulousness, right here in your school district, with no additional cost or burden on anyone (except maybe the parents who have to pick up their kids late after an extracurricular activity or meeting every once in a while). These organizations mediate conflicts, serve as mentors, provide information, have debates, give speeches to class, debunk stereotypes, and offer a wealth of confidential resources and support just by being a safe presence during a time of notorious emotional upheaval and confusion. My immediate reaction after reading the Times article was, “Why the fuck doesn’t New Jersey just appoint a bunch of GSAs in these schools?” Especially since the article mentions the suicide of a gay teen who was the victim of a homophobic hate crime. Isn’t that a more apropos way of dealing with future situations that may occur, rather than inviting lawsuits by turning every high school into a police state?
But this is where I throw my hands up in disgust, since I unfortunately do not run the world. Very few GSAs exist, because very few school districts allow them to. And herein lies the problem–herein lies the reason all the anti-bullying legislation in the world is a smokescreen. “Bullying” someone to the point of psychological and physical harm, even if it is self-inflicted, is actually not bullying at all, but a hate crime. Until parents, schools, churches, communities, SOCIETY EVERYWHERE wake up and realize what they’re doing to children just because they’re gay, what messages they’re sending to other children about being gay, kids will be horrible to each other and hate crimes will continue and gay teens will continue to fucking run away from home and kill themselves and engage in all the well-documented and horrible outcomes of which we are all too aware in the social sciences. The root cause of the problem is not being addressed by this law, and that is the true crime.