Carl Joseph Walker Hoover is a name that the members of New Leadership Charter School will not soon forget. Known as a bright and ambitious 6th grader, on April 6, 2009, his body was discovered by his mother after he hung himself in an upstairs room of their Springfield, Massachusetts home. 1
It was discovered that Carl was the target of a daily barrage of anti-gay language and taunts from bullies at his school. The constant terror every day was enough to make Carl want to end his own life, even when his sexual orientation was not known to be gay. Most disturbingly, these cases of “bully-cide” have become increasingly common. In recent years, episodes of bullying related to anti-gay sentiments have resulted in suicides like that of college freshman Tyler Clementi in 2010, who chose to jump off the George Washington Bridge rather than continue to face harassments stemming from his sexual orientation.2
These are the tragic stories that anti-bullying advocates such as Assistant Deputy Secretary Kevin Jennings of the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools, U.S. Department of Education, hope will generate a better understanding of what bullying entails, and what forces within schools and beyond can do to help. In a discussion centered on understanding bullying at the U.S. Department of Justice’s RFK building on January 26, 2011, Jennings emphasized the need for not only recognizing why some groups are targets for potential bullying, but also what needs to be done through policy and other support to combat this trend.
Two out of the top three reasons for being bullied were because people perceived the victim as either gay, lesbian, or bisexual, or by how masculine or feminine they seemed. These descriptors target populations of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transsexual (LGBT) students who are more likely to be at risk for encountering physically or emotionally damaging taunts, language, and threats due to sexual orientation or affiliation with LGBT individuals.3 Bullying can make them feel enough shame to even hide the trouble from loved ones, resulting in a sense of hopeless isolation that restrains them from seeking help and can result in the taking of desperate measures instead of suffering the victimization any longer.4
What can society and schools themselves do to deter bullies who target those perceived to be, identify with, or are affiliated with LGBT groups? Although the Equal Access Act, implemented in 1984, guarantees the rights of students to form clubs such as Gay-Straight Alliances, there is no federal anti-bullying law in place to protect LGBT students from harassment from their peers. Where does one start to find the solutions necessary to build up the policies essential to ensure a student’s safety?5
Jennings presented many optimal solutions, with the ultimate goals being that, “In a truly safe school, every student feels like they: 1) belong, 2) are valued, and 3) are physically and emotionally safe.”6 In order to meet such standards, Jennings suggested that schools must adopt principles that will educate faculty, staff, and parents about how to recognize bullying and how to intervene early, and also for places of education to adopt policies that teachers and other school officials can stand behind and uphold when bullying incidences do occur.
At the federal level, the U.S. Department of Education has helped the inception of such solutions by awarding 11 states money from a pilot grant program known as Safe and Supportive Schools. These states have received federal funds to implement and measure progress in improving the conditions for learning in their schools. The goal is to increase feelings of safety (physical, emotional, and the absence of substance abuse) as well as measure what types of support students receive (or don’t) in regards to their relationships at school, their participation in school activities, and aspects of their environment that do or do not promote well-being.7
Not only does the apparent need for grant funds being expressed at the state level bring encouragement; it is also promising to see agencies at the federal level, including the COPS Office and other Department of Justice entities, collaborating together in Bullying Prevention Working Groups. Together these partners have accomplished great things, such as the organization of the National Bullying Summit, held in August 2010. Their action plans have also promoted best practices in bullying policies, as well as what research needs to be done regarding “bully-cides” and their prevention.
The Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools is highly invested in deterring the bullying epidemic. With the U.S. Department of Education and other federal allies at the helm of such policies, the end goal of maintaining students’ safety, support, and feelings of belonging are of the utmost importance. Every student has the right to feel safe and secure in their learning environment and with the proper awareness and implementation of polices being done today, we can intervene and prevent future incidences like Carl Hoover from happening.
The COPS Office
1 Jennings, Kevin. “Understanding Bullying” (presentation). January 26, 2011
3 From Teasing to Torment: School Climate in America (2005)
4 Petrosino, A., S. Guckenburg, J. DeVoc, and T. Hanson. 2010. What characteristics of bullying, bullying victims, and schools are associated with increased reporting of bullying to school officials? Issues & Answers Report, REI, 2010: No.092. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education.
5 Jennings, Kevin. “Understanding Bullying” (presentation). January 26, 2011
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