On exceptions to “all”

Students, all students, should feel safe at school. All students should be protected from bullying. Comedian Keith Deltano demonstrates that the interpretation of “all” can carry exceptions, and that those exceptions can be made invisible through omission. In October 2011, Deltano presented an “anti-bullying” program to Smarts Mill Middle School in Leesburg, funded by the SMMS PTA.

Prior to that, in 2006, Deltano had given a controversial and harmful sex-education presentation. I was concerned that our school system was, once again, paying Deltano to impose propaganda on the students. After attending Deltano’s adult presentation, I sent the letter below to the SMMS principal. A copy was also forwarded to the school board. Had the school board considered the content of this letter prior to their first meeting, perhaps they wouldn’t have made the decision to dismiss the human rights concerns of the previous board.

Dear Principal Waldman,

I’m a concerned parent of a Loudoun alumnus. I attended Keith Deltano’s anti-bullying presentation on October 3, 2011. While I can understand why the kids were entertained and why you may have found it motivational, I unfortunately cannot agree that he presented a good message. Please allow me to explain why.

The problem has to do with his omissions. In anti-bullying programs that use measurable, evidence-based criteria (for example, see OLWEUS), gender-based bullying (including sexual harassment) is targeted as a very serious part of the problem. Mr. Deltano not only fails to address this, he at times engages in it himself. See for example his “newest short clip” on his Facebook page. It’s sexual harassment and ridicule directed at a young woman, in the guise of “humor,” and it’s unsurprising that kids find it funny. This shaming approach has been shown to be not only ineffective, but harmful. Mr. Deltano also omitted the key, defining piece of information from his discussion of Tyler Clemente – the fact that he took his own life after being subjected to specificallyanti-gay bullying and ridicule. The omission of the specific characteristics for which kids are bullied is harmful to the kids who are bullied for those characteristics; it is exclusion, and is a form of bullying in itself. Consider: There aren’t any advocacy groups with a platform saying that girls with one short arm are a “threat to society”. But there are advocacy groups saying that about people who use birth control, or kids with undocumented parents, or kids who don’t conform to gender stereotypes.

Mr. Deltano is a for-profit entertainer, not an educator, and he makes these omissions deliberately – either because of his own personal views or to shield himself from parents who might object to having some of the facts presented. He tells a target audience that pays him what they want to hear, and is not accountable for providing accurate information. For instance, what he told parents about mobile phone companies is not true; AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile all offer parental controls.

There is a Blueprints project at the University of Colorado that has evaluated 900 anti-violence programs across the country and selected model programs for their effectiveness. The programs measure effectiveness through surveys. The Southern Poverty Law Center also has developed teaching resources for addressing bullying. If the school system is serious about bullying, it will put an evidence-based program into place and follow through with surveys and analysis (there was an attempt to conduct surveys of parents several years ago, but it was quashed at the behest of Supervisor Eugene Delgaudio).

I can understand your decision to bring in Mr. Deltano. The PTA had money and he’s got a schtick that makes the kids laugh. However, please use the due diligence that Mr. Deltano himself warned the kids their future employers will use: Google him, and decide if he’s really the best choice when the objective is to do something effective to combat actual bullying.

Please forward a copy of this letter to your staff and to Carolyn Mullen and the PTA.

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