True Tolerance and bullying prevention, part 2

Last week, Anderson Cooper 360 examined the claims of Focus on the Family’s Candi Cushman that anti-bullying programs can be fronts for gay promotion. My initial post on the subject is here with the video of the segment here. Cooper links to the True Tolerance website where some of the claims are made and a list of bullying facts are listed. Given my interest in bullying prevention, I checked it out.

While I did not fact check every aspect of the site, I examined the reasons for bullying references, again an interest of mine. My contention is that kids are bullied, in part, for appearing to be different from social and gender norms which are crystalizing at late childhood and early adolescence. Early grade school is a lot kinder than later grade school (4-6) and middle school is often a brutal and unforgiving social order.

Here is what the True Tolerance document says about why kids are bullied:

Physical appearance —or the general concept of appearing different than one’s peers— is actually the most commonly reported reason for why victims are targeted.

Statistics also indicate that race, ethnicity issues, and even opposite-sex harassment actually account for more bullying problems than do homosexual related issues.

Immediately, it occured to me that appearing different is very relevant to GLB issues since kids who experience same-sex attractions are often gender atypical in their interests and behavior and are perceived to be gay because of their differing appearance. Looking further, I checked the references provided. The first reference was to a state of Virginia study which asked kids and teachers several reasons why they were bullied. The report disclosed

When asked about the general school climate, nearly three-fourths reported that students were teased about their physical appearance, about half reported teasing about sexual topics, and about one-third reported that students are often put down because of their race or ethnicity.

Teachers agreed on the first two topics but not with the race/ethnicity reason. The survey does not break down either physical appearance/clothing or sexual topics. It seems highly likely to me that one of those sexual topics was perceptions of sexual orientation but one cannot be sure.

The next reference to validate the point was from the 2007 Winter edition of the journal Adolecence, which again found that appearance was the most common reason given, followed by the victim’s behavior. This reference may not make the desired point since perceived sexual orientation is a matter of behavior and appearance.

The next reference was to a 2004 study reported in the Journal of the American Psychiatric Nurses Association. This study simply asked middle school students why kids were bullied and then grouped the answers by theme. The essential findings were:

Sources of teasing and bullying were physical appearance, personal behavior, family and environment, and school relations. “Being different in any way” was the underlying theme.

The authors provided descriptors for each of their categories which point to a variety of indicators of difference including “acting too much like the other sex” and “acting ‘gay.'” Click the graphic to see their rendering of the students’ answers.

 (Click on the graphic to see the image more clearly)

There are many reasons given and these may not all have the same frequency in each school. One of the hallmarks of a good bullying prevention program is districtwide assessment to learn what the hot button issues are in the different schools.

In the discussion section of this article, the authors provide a fuller description of the themes. Under the theme of “personality and behavior,” the authors address bullying associated with perceived orientation, first noting a student’s report:

“There’s a boy on my bus, and he acts like a girl, sort of. He has all these rings on his fingers and paints his nails clear. . . .And his voice is soft . . . people make fun of him . . . they call him gay and faggot all the time.” These quotations indicate that differences in personality or behavior can single out a student to be the object of teasing and bullying. Crossing a conventional line, such as acting in a way that is associated with the other gender or another race, or with “being gay,” placed a student in jeopardy for particularly malicious forms of harassment.

The next reference is to a 1996 special issue of the International Child and Youth Care Network, edited by a former professor of mine at Ohio University, Richard Hazler. I feel sure Hazler would not be happy to see his work referenced as a way to minimize the effects of bullying based on perceived orientation. At any rate, the reference is to a summary of the journal and so one cannot make any comparative assessments. According to the summary, physical appearance is at the top of the reasons for bullying:

Physical appearance (overweight, “the way my face looked”) and socio-familial context (“who my friends were,” “I was hot tempered”) were the most common factors reported by students as reasons for their victimization.

As noted, physical appearance is broad enough to include bullying that would include perceptions of sexual orientation.

The next set of references seek to support the contention that homosexual issues rank down the list of reasons people are bullied. The first reference is the New York City school districts report of bias related disciplinary incidents. According the January, 2010 news release:

The Department’s audit found that 6,207—or 4.7 percent—out of a total of 130,837 disciplinary incidents reported in the City’s public schools during the 2008-09 school year were bias-related. Of the biases associated with these incidents, 55 percent were gender-related, 21 percent were race/color-related, and 13 percent were related to students’ gender identity, gender expression, or sexual orientation.

While ranked third in the list, the number of kids bullied for gender/orientation issues is sobering when one considers the number of kids in the sexual minority category. This means that quite a few kids are perceived as a sexual minority and that a high percentage of them are being harassed. It also may mean that sexuality related slurs are being leveled at many kids due to perceived status.

 Several of the next bunch of references are not studies but news articles (e.g., racial strife in Philadelphia) which cannot address the reasons for being bullied. This is a distraction and not an appropriate means of supporting the desired points. A proponent of including sexual orientation issues could advance articles about students like Carl Hoover-Walker, Jaheem Herrera,  Eric Mohat and Justin Aaberg in order to make their points. All of those boys experienced anti-gay harassment and all committed suicide. The articles provided by the True Tolerance website identify real problems but they are not relevant to the prevalence of anti-gay bullying.

One of the references did not relate to bullying in general but rather was a study of sexual harassment. But even in this study, the researchers reported that sexual harassment involved verbal bullying, saying

With respect to perpetration, research suggests that African-American boys weremore likely than their Hispanic and White counterparts to engage in physical sexual harassment, whereas White boys were more likely to engage in nonphysical harassment such as calling someone gay or lesbian or spreading sexual rumors (AAUW, 2001).

While the report does not directly address bullying in general, this reference fails to support the fact sheet and in fact supports the idea that gay related teasing is an important aspect of the problem.

To me, if one approaches this from a neutral perspective, one has to name a problem to solve it. If in a given district, sexual minorities are being targeted, then one must train teachers and staff to recognize it and stop it. If anti-gay slurs are being used, then one must acknowledge the existance of gay students to make the point that such remarks are hurtful and manipulative. One would do this for any domain of bias, it seems to me. If belief indoctrination is of concern, then the programs should be evaluated on a case by case basis and local parent groups convened to find solutions that work at the local level.