MassEquality aims to help schools in anti-bullying prevention

March 3, 2011
By: Chuck Colbert/TRT Reporter
Two hundred people turned out on Feb. 19, as the state’s largest gay-rights and lobbying organization rolled out the color red-ruby, crimson, scarlet, lipstick, and cherry. The occasion was MassEquality’s Red Party, the group’s signature fundraiser. This year marked the second annual celebration, held at The Estate, a nightclub located in Boston’s Theatre District neighborhood.

Altogether, a host of individual and corporate sponsors raised $75,000, with proceeds going to fund a new MassEquality initiative that would provide support to schools across the Commonwealth in implementing the state’s anti-bullying law, passed last spring by the Legislature.

The new initiative adds another policy piece to MassEquality’s expanded mission of making the state the best place for LGBT people to live “from cradle to grave.”

“What we are looking to do is fund a position for someone to be responsible for working with school districts, helping to ensure that the policies put in place are, at a minimum, in compliance with what the law requires,” explained Kara Suffredini, MassEquality’s executive director.

“We want to provide technical assistance for educators, helping them to craft the best policies that we know of and to ensure that policies put into place are successful in protecting LGBT youth and children with lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender parents,” she said.

Massachusetts has one of the nation’s strongest anti-bullying laws, providing broad protections against harmful behaviors.

The law defines bullying as repeated acts that cause physical or emotional harm, places students “in reasonable fear of harm,’’ or create an “unwelcoming or hostile environment at school for another person.’’

It prohibits bullying on school grounds, on school buses, at school-sponsored activities, and through electronic communication like e-mail or social networking media.

The law requires that every school employee report incidents of suspected bullying and that principals investigate each case. It also requires schools, both public and private, to develop comprehensive bullying prevention, intervention and notification plans and to publish them in student handbooks.

In addition, the law provides for training of teachers and students on how to identify, prevent, and manage incidents of bullying

But for all its strengths, however, the anti-bullying measure lacks enumerated characteristics of protections for types of students most likely to experience bullying.

“Our law only prohibits conduct, not particular kinds of bullying,” Suffredini said.

Why is listing specific categories so important? Anti-bullying laws that name categories of protections such as gender, religion, sexual orientation and gender identity or expression put everyone on notice for who is protected, Suffredini explained.

“Without enumerated characteristics school officials might not know they need to protect LGBT kids, or teachers might not feel comfortable standing up for LGBT youth because they don’t want to bring gay issues into the school by doing so,” she added.

Last fall more a dozen teenage boys committed suicide after reportedly experiencing peer harassment for being gay or being perceived to be gay.

Perhaps the most widely covered incident was the death of Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old freshman at Rutgers University. There, roommates secretly videotaped Clementi and another male during an intimate sexual encounter. A day later, after they had posted it on the Internet, Clementi, jumped from the George Washington Bridge.

Fortunately, none of the most recent teen suicides occurred in Massachusetts. But two years ago, 11-year-old Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover of Springfield hanged himself after enduring bullying at school, including daily taunts of being gay, despite his mother’s pleas to the school to address the problem.

During a short program at the Red Party and afterwards, several people discussed LGBT-related bullying in highly personal terms.

Executive director Suffredini, for example, told the gathering of her experience. “I was called ‘Tom Boy’ to my face and ‘dyke’ behind my back,” she said.

Another person spoke of being bullied for coming out bisexual: “People kept calling me names like ‘dyke’ and ‘fag.’ I’ve been bullied for how I look. When I told my mother I was bi, she didn’t believe it.”

Julie Goodridge, treasurer of the MassEquality Education Fund, discussed her daughter’s bullying, starting in nursery school for having two moms. “Two years ago, a classmate called her a ‘fucking homo freak’ on Annie’s Facebook page,” which is minor compared to the abuse kids like Carl Walker-Hoover endured,” Julie said.

“I know that school yards and school environments can be very rough places for kids who identify as LGBT and for kids whose parents identify that way,” said Sue Hyde, a mother of two, who also serves on the MassEquality Education Fund’s board of directors.

“My kids were not subject to the fierce and relentless bullying and taunting that we hear about,” she explained. “They certainly experienced, in grades K – 8, a variety of ways that their family was disparaged and spoke about in unkind ways. This was in the City of Cambridge. If it’s happening in Cambridge, we know that it is happening in our cities and towns across the state.”

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