The Bully Pulpit: The Politics of Defining—and Dealing With—Bullying 

Bullying may be in the spotlight, but policy makers struggle to address it

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"There's just one thing you can't do after you turn 18: You can't talk to the kids we're still torturing, the LGBT teenagers being assaulted emotionally, physically and spiritually in the same cities, schools and churches you escaped from. And if you do attempt to talk to the kids we're still torturing, we'll impugn your motives, we'll accuse you of being a pedophile or pederast, we'll claim you're trying to recruit children into the gay lifestyle. That was the old order, and it fell apart when the It Gets Better Project went viral."

While LGBT kids are targeted for bullying at much higher rates, Savage said what really sets them apart is that there is no one for them to turn to. Racial minorities most commonly go home to parents who have faced similar issues, but LGBT kids most commonly go home to straight parents, who may be living in forceful, even violent denial.

But Savage is realistic. He doesn't think the It Gets Better Project has any chance of stopping bullying.

"The point of the project is to give despairing LGBT kids hope," he said.

And hope is certainly something they're in need of.

After his jaw was broken by a bully and the school refused to act, Jerome resident Nichole Harris brought her nephew Devante to a meeting of the House Education Committee to plead for help.

Legislators asked what would help and he put it plainly.

"I would like you to pass this bill so I can go to school and feel safe instead of worrying that my jaw might get broken again."

Legislators praised the boy's bravery and moved the bill through committee. But despite their stated intent to help, the bill was never even brought to the floor.

And potentially more damaging, education funding as a whole was gutted in the 2010 session, meaning the existing programs to improve school climate must now get by with even less.

According to McCarter, the state's school safety expert, those programs are what really count.

He said that to get serious about the issue, three things need to happen.

First, behavior expectations must be transparent and overt. He offered examples of schools that paint murals in common areas outlining basic expectations like safety and courtesy.

Second, teachers must be held to the same standards.

"Bullying is often kids imitating adult social behavior," McCarter said. Though it seems like this second requirement should be a given, the subtleties can be trickier than one might think.

The Safe Schools Coalition survey found 58 percent of heterosexual students and 48 percent of LGBT students reported hearing homophobic remarks often or very often from other students. It also found that 13 percent of heterosexual students and 17 percent of LGBT students heard them from teachers or staff.

Third, those policies must be enforced consistently.

"Kids have a keen sense of justice," said McCarter. "They know when someone gets a pass instead of getting busted."

McCarter said that selective and subjective enforcement is poison to any attempts to address the issue of bullying. Unfortunately it's also been standard operating procedure to address bullying for all of human history. It's punished by some authority figures, encouraged by others, and often who it is doing the bullying can be the deciding factor about whether there are repercussions.

Though it failed, it should be pointed out that SB 1105 would only have addressed one of the three issues, the consistent enforcement, by changing language in the existing laws from "a student who violates any provision of this section may be guilty of an infraction" to "shall be guilty of an infraction."

That line, the one stipulating consistent enforcement, was the major bone of contention, with nearly one-third of the representatives present at the March 22 meeting of the House Education Committee speaking against it.

And as Sen. Steve Vick, a Dalton Gardens Republican and the third no vote in the Senate, put it: "I had two concerns with the legislation. It was more state mandates on local school districts and we are trying to legislate what should be common sense."

Of course, what constitutes common sense varies from person to person.

"What characterizes this issue best isn't what's said, but what's left unsaid," McCarter said.

And what appears to be unsaid is while the wolves are busy roaming the schoolyard, the chickens are roosting in the Statehouse.

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