Common sense victories over bullying

There are two items of good news to report today. First, the Anoka-Hennepin School District (discussed in This is what the “Black Brigade” wanted for Loudoun) has reached a settlement described as unprecedented and a model for schools across the nation in appropriately addressing gender and orientation-based bullying.

The second item is that the Suffolk County School Board has removed harmful language from a proposed dress code policy that would have punished students for wearing attire “that is not in keeping with a student’s gender [sic].”

Regarding Anoka-Hennepin, Kate Kendall of the National Center for Lesbian Rights makes a very good point:

We’ve talked a great deal about bullying in schools the past several years, and many of us have committed ourselves to ending the terror for both the targets and the agents, because in many ways, both are victims. They are victims of a culture that fails to intervene and refuses to act. Nowhere has that failure been more stark than the Anoka-Hennepin School District in Minnesota.

That point is echoed in remarks by one of the plaintiffs, Anoka High School freshman Dylon Frei, who was viciously bullied as a seventh grader.

[Frei] said that speaking out has brought an unexpected level of support, even from some of the kids who used to torment him. He said some have told him, “‘I was so stupid, I’m sorry.’ That just feels great because they know what they did wrong and they’re going to stop it and they’re becoming better people.”

Truthfully, all of the children in this situation are victims. The criminal behavior and poisonous ideas polluting this school district, in which nine students felt so hopeless and alone that they ended their own lives, came from adults like activist Barb Anderson and board member Kathy Tingelstad (who resigned after casting the single vote against the settlement). The behavior of these adults has been so lethal to children that federal intervention became necessary. Let this be a warning to those who object on principle to any interference with local control of education: Do your job.

The six student plaintiffs will receive a settlement of $270,000, and the district will participate in a partnership with the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education, which began a civil rights investigation of the district in November 2010. The criminal policies that prohibited any discussion of sexual orientation, and prohibited teachers from intervening in anti-gay bullying are now over.

Those policies reflected a calculated gay- and trans-exterminationist ideology on the part of activists in the Anoka-Hennepin district (the district, not coincidentally, represented by Congressmember Michelle Bachmann). In contrast, the dress code language that was rejected by the Suffolk School Board yesterday was proposed by a woman with seemingly good intentions but very little information. Fortunately, the absence of information can be corrected without the drastic step of federal intervention.

Vice Chairwoman Thelma Hinton advocated for the restriction, saying boys wearing dresses, makeup and other feminine attire had become a safety issue in the schools. The dress code would protect students from bullying and harassment, she said.

It’s pretty hard to tell from this description what’s going on here. Are there transgender kids in the schools? That’s a near certainty, out of 14,000 students. But the kids in this description aren’t necessarily trans or gender variant. At any rate, the “solution” of preventing bullying and harassment of gender variant kids by policing their attire is exactly the wrong approach, for both pragmatic and moral reasons. The Ms. Magazine blog reasonably asks “Who will decide what is gender-appropriate clothing, and what criteria will they use?” At a time in which throwbacks to an earlier era are trying to reopen the question of whether women have the right to use contraception, one can imagine them also wasting school board time with the question of whether women have the right to wear “dungarees,” as they charmingly called them back in the day.

More importantly, you don’t address bullying by focusing on changing the behavior of the target – hello, that’s what the chastened folks in Anoka-Hennepin tried to do. You focus on the behavior of the bully. Ms. Hinton even “cited recent LGBT suicides and harassment cases unconnected to the school district as evidence that something needs to be done.” If there is gender-based bullying in the Suffolk schools, then something does need to be done – but this isn’t it.

Instead of protecting targeted students, the ban actually singles them out, suggesting that they are the problem and need to conform for it to become better, rather than embracing and working with the differences of the entire student body.

Exactly. The answer is education – these are schools, after all. Resident Julian Long testified before the board back in February when this was brought up, and his remarks are quoted in this excellent Suffolk News-Herald article:

Long, a Norfolk resident, reported being bullied and beat up “on a daily basis” when he was in school because he wore boys’ clothing and kept his hair short, even though he had been born a girl. When he reported it to his teachers, they said, “You brought it on yourself.”

They suggested he begin wearing his hair long and using makeup. But it didn’t work, he told the School Board. Other students still beat him up because they perceived that he was somehow different.

“It’s not a game for trans people,” he said after the meeting. “It’s a vital part of our identity.”

He said transgender people who are forced to deny who they are often drop out of school or become depressed and suicidal.

Long, who is a William and Mary law school graduate, said he did not doubt the School Board’s desire to protect all its students but thinks it would be better to deal with the bullies, rather than those who are bullied.

“Obviously, everyone in this room cares deeply about student safety,” Long said. “But the proposed dress code policy will hurt children — children just like I was.”

Advocates will be watching this closely. Although the most problematic language has been dropped, there is still language that could potentially be misused, and there has not yet been a final vote on the dress code policy.

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