Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Anti-Bullying Work in Schools


My eight-year-old son Sam has hair down to his waist; he is generally mistaken for a girl. Though recently he's most passionate about Star Wars, for years he played princess dress-up games and wore a fairy costume on Halloween. I have no idea what his gender identity and sexuality will be once he reaches high school. But I want to do everything I can so that he won't be attacked for his differences when he gets there.

According to the GLSEN 2009 School Climate Report, 90% of LGBT students experience verbal harassment at school; 40% experience physical harassment, and almost 20% report physical assault. Straight, gender-normative kids can be hurt by bullying, too, as victims and as witnesses. Whoever our children are, we have a stake in changing the cultural norm of disrespecting, harassing, and bullying kids who are different. It's time to decide, as a society, that torment needn't be a normal part of growing up.
That sort of cultural shift is going to take many, many parents demanding it at many, many schools in many, many cities and towns across this country. In every school, there are gender-nonconforming kids, kids with LGBT family members, and kids who will grow up to be gay. The only way to get ahead of the bullying -- to prevent it, rather than to punish it after it occurs -- is to educate the faculty, staff, and students in age-appropriate ways about respecting difference.

Since the founding of the It Gets Better Project in September, Dan Savage's inspirational video campaign has shined a spotlight on bullying in schools, brought hope to millions of kids, and launched a national grassroots movement with over 100,000 supporters, including President Obama. It is hugely important to let LGBT teenagers know that if they can make it past the terrible years of middle school and high school, life does get better.

It is our schools' responsibility -- their job -- to keep all kids safe. I am working with our school to enhance their anti-bullying curriculum, and I encourage you to do the same. Here are some resources that you can offer your school as they develop or improve their own curriculum:

- Welcoming Schools, a program of the Human Rights Campaign, provides K-5 schools with resources on embracing family diversity, avoiding gender stereotypes, and ending bullying and name-calling.

- Teaching Tolerance supports schools (using teaching kits, tips for students, and professional development resources) so that they can create inclusive and equitable K-12 learning environments .

- The GLSEN Jump-Start Guide for Gay-Straight Alliances and the GSA Network can help your school create a middle school Gay-Straight Alliance.

- Organizations like Our Family Coalition and Gender Spectrum can come to your elementary, middle, or high school to train faculty, staff, students, and parents about family diversity, gender roles, stereotyping, and anti-bullying in age-appropriate ways.

- The GLSEN Safe Space Kit is intended to help educators create a safe space for LGBT youth.

- The Trevor Project's Trevor Survival Kit is designed to facilitate classroom discussions about gender identity, sexual orientation, and suicide prevention.

- Your school can bring in age-appropriate anti-bullying films such as Teaching Tolerance's Bullied, Groundspark's Let's Get Real and Straightlaced, and the Trevor Project's Trevor.

- Faculty, administrators, and parents can come together by launching a Gay-Straight Parent-Teacher Alliance. We can't be effective at ending bullying until we all have a stake in each other's wellbeing -- and inviting straight families to join in the LGBT work of the community will let us grown-ups do what we are asking our children to do: to work together and respect each other's differences.

And remember to thank your school. Thank them for any anti-bullying or inclusiveness work that they have done in the past -- people hear you better when you acknowledge their efforts. And if they have done nothing, it will help if you are grateful that they are taking the time to listen to you right now. Acknowledge that it's hard work to make change, but that you are fully committed to it, that you know other parents will be as well, and that you expect the school to be, too.

I've found it exquisitely painful to watch my son be bullied, and even more so when his school drags their feet about making changes. And it has been exquisitely lovely to find teachers and administrators who are supportive and wise and understand the value to all students, not just mine, of anti-bullying work. And when I've been able to help an administrator who was unsympathetic to see the value of this work, I am in awe.

So tell your school that none of us can do it alone. That you need them, and you believe in them. And tell them that together, we can save lives.

Sarah Hoffman is a pseudonymous writer whose work has been published in print and online publications including the San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco magazine, the sadly-defunct Cookie magazine, and Babble, as well as aired on NPR. She lives with her pink boy, her yellow girl, and her multicolored husband in San Francisco. Her work can be found at her website.

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Sarah, it's terrific that you pulled together all of these resources in one blog post. Thanks, too, for the shout out to our films, Let's Get Real" and "Straightlaced" Here is an anti-bullying "Spark" that readers can take a look at. We're offering free streaming of our documentaries until the end of the year to help parents have concrete tools to use at home or school to get this important conversation started.
Sarah, you are well informed and have educated yourself about what is needed. I also had a son bullied in elementary school. I have since started a GLSEN chapter in my area to bring these resources closer and to help speed that change along. Thanks for your work and devotion to all our kids.
Debra, your films are so helpful to so many, I'm glad to promote them. I'll keep spreading the word! (BTW I'm an old friend of Helen's.) Jane, way to take charge, founding a new GLSEN chapter!! I'm sorry that your son was bullied, though thankfully it sounds like he had support at home.
Hi sarah, Your point about "getting ahead of the bullying" is so critically important. Even in the younger grades, even in small schools, even when there doesn't "seem" to be a problem, each school can and needs to take a proactive role in teaching tolerance. Like so many societal ills, bullying is easier to prevent then stop once it's started. Keep up the great work!
Lherr, Exactly! Punishing kids after the fact is not the way to stop bullying. My children's school has a strong "zero tolerance for bulling" policy, but that does little to prevent it from happening. When my son was in second grade, the principal told me that every year without fail the third graders started calling each other "gay." And not in a nice way. He said that they've tried and tried but nothing has worked to stop this name-calling. I told him that it doesn't have to be this way. I've provided them with all the resources I collected here, but I'm finding that offering resources is one thing--getting a school to use them is quite another. What I'm working on now is getting enough parents together to demand action so that the school realizes how important it is. Sarah Hoffman
When my son's school in Minneapolis was selected for a test-run of the Welcoming Schools curriculum in 2008, I was shocked at the amount of resistance from members of our community. When I expressed my support for the program in my newspaper column I became a target of online harassment like you wouldn't believe. I'm a straight housewife in one of the most liberal cities in the country, so I cannot imagine the kind of vitriol that GLBT kids experience in conservative communities. No one can pretend that lives aren't at stake anymore. Thanks for this article and the resources you list.
Shannon, unbelievable! Or, sadly, believable. Thanks for standing up for the Welcoming Schools curriculum in your son's school. Sometimes I think that having allies stand up for LGBT-inclusive programming is the most powerful way to make change, despite resistance.
Thanks, Sarah, for continuing to write about this! It means more than you know.
Thanks, Jacinta. Glad to hear it.
Hi Sarah ~ I do children's programming and am putting together a program on bullying/teaching respect and tolerance. Your article/blog/book has inspired me to add a pink boy to my program. Thank you!
Carol, that's wonderful! If you let me know about your program I'd love to talk about it on my blog.
Carol, that's wonderful! If you let me know about your program I'd love to talk about it on my blog.
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