Thursday, August 20, 2009

Indifference to Bullying

After a bit of a summer break, I returned to see this chestnut in the headlines: Openly gay teen sues Mohawk school district, Claims leaders' indifference failed to stop ongoing abuse. Since we read all the time about how schools cause more problems than they solve by being absurdly reactionary or just downright irrational, a story about a school not doing enough to prevent a crisis seems like a rare thing these days.

Readers will remember it wasn't too long ago that the story of the Springfield boy who committed suicide due to the school's indifference toward the severe bullying he'd been suffering with dropped a similar feel as this one. On the same occasion, we also heard of the middle school that sought to prevent bullying by banning all touch whether good or bad. Why does it seem that some schools either deal with bullying with an all or nothing approach?

We know all schools have to deal with bullying, that not every case of bullying a school is dealing with winds up in the news (and not everything in the news is true), and that on the whole schools do an adequate and reasonable job preventing unthinkable crises from escalating. It's really about doing what is adequate (as in, doing enough to protect victims of harassment in schools), while still remaining in the realm of what is reasonable (as in, not throwing down overly simple solutions--like banning all touch). But in these individual cases, sometimes you just have to wonder whether they are erring too far one way or the other.
He’d been picked on in seventh grade for not acting or looking “how a boy should look.” Students threw food at him, called him names, broke his cell phone and iPod, and constantly hurled names his way. Last year was worse.

“I had a hard time concentrating at school because I was constantly being harassed,” the teen said in an interview Wednesday. While all this was happening, Jacob and his parents say, Mohawk Central School District officials did nothing.
Due to the fact that the student is openly homosexual, there's always going to be the possibility that the school, for some reason, didn't count harassment on the basis of sexual orientation (something young people don't legally have) as actual harassment, or was for any reason of opinion willfully ignorant to it. The lawsuit goes on to describe various incidents of complaints made by the student and his family that the high school principal repeatedly took no action on, it also describes how a teacher explicitly on a number of occasions made the student's sexual orientation the subject of ridicule and humiliation.

Those who are implicated--the school, the principal, and the teacher--all deny these charges. If it is the case here that the school knowingly ignored his complaints of harassment on the basis of his sexual orientation, then that is one issue. If they knowingly ignored his complaints simply because that's their policy, then they're just not doing what is adequate. And if such is the case, let's hope they don't throw themselves too far in the opposite, unreasonable, direction as a response.


  1. The point that young people do not legally have "sexual orientation" is a neat one? But is it, strictly speaking, valid? Can one legally have a sexual orientation even if it's not legal for one to perform the external sexual acts one would like to?

    Without wishing to sound too conservative, this leads me to think that it's quite wrong to make the putative motivation behind the bullying an issue. The school should be defending the child's right not be bullied, not specifically his sexuality, race, sex, or whatever.

    In any event, bullies will always pick on those weaker than themselves. It's a mistake to try to engage them on some sort of rational level over why they choose to bully the victims they do.

  2. Originally I posed the issue about "sexual orientation" vs. "sexual ability" as a question much the way you worded it Selfish Giant, because I don't know much about what the law says, if anything, regarding "minor sexual orientation." As far as I'm concerned, status crime laws don't regulate terms or define people (other than to classify them by legal age), but instead simply define what is legal and what is not for minors to do.

    My stance was, if the reasoning behind the law is that kids can't have sex because they don't have a sexuality, how can it be protected? Youth status crime laws are not based on the reasoning that youth need to be protected from unwanted sexual advances, because they prosecute all youth sexual behavior--whether cognizant or not, whether wanted or not. Perhaps the reasoning is that youths have the capacity to be sexual, but if they are, it is criminal.

    In any case, you're correct. I only included the issue of homosexuality because it seemed to be the main thrust of the lawsuit. The real issue here is whether or not the school was indifferent to the bullying this student received.

  3. If in fact school officials callously disregarded this young man's complaints, I certainly hope he wins his lawsuit. There is no excuse for such conduct by supposedly responsible educators; it is incumbent upon them to provide an atmosphere free of harrassment for any reason. This situation is yet another reminder that, even in this day and age, a large segment of society still regards homosexuals as second-class citizens - or worse. That is the salient point of my recently released biographical novel, Broken Saint. It is based on my forty-year friendship with a gay man, and chronicles his internal and external struggles as he battles for acceptance (of himself and by others). More information on the book is available at

    Mark Zamen, author