Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Putting an End to Bullying


By Jacqueline White

My adopted daughter was born in the projects of the South Bronx, some of the meanest streets in America, and in her early years was tutored in its ruthless code. Though able to escape to Minnesota through her first adoption, she remains proud of her “New York skills”: her ability to throw down, to fight back, to not get punked.

I tell you this because Amy would want you to understand that for Amy Perez, a tough kid from the Bronx, to perceive her suburban Minneapolis high school as so dangerous she had no choice but to drop out, well, it had to be truly treacherous. It’s been more than a decade now, but when word got out that Amy was a lesbian, she was jumped twice and roughed up. The school administration offered no help: she was told she had brought on the attacks herself because of her sexual orientation.

School had been Amy’s refuge, the one glimpse of normalcy she had in the abusive chaos of her biological, foster, and first adoptive homes. Even after her first adoptive mother kicked her out upon discovering Amy’s love letters to another girl, Amy still went to school though she was homeless. She loved school and, as she has said, “The books and the teachers loved me back.” She was staying in a youth shelter when, on cable TV, she happened to catch her classmates walking across a stage to receive their diplomas. The sight was devastating.

My former partner and I met up with Amy through the Twin Cities Host Home program (http://www.avenuesforyouth.org/) which matches homeless gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender youth with trained community volunteers who provide housing and mentoring. We encouraged her to get her GED, and she did.

Though attending Amy’s GED graduation with a couple of cameras around my neck was one of my proudest moments, the victory felt incomplete. What about the other gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students? Would they be able to stay in school and learn?

I became an activist, determined that schools become accountable for providing a safe learning environment for all students. Through the Rainbow Families School Initiative, I co-authored a report last year detailing the discrepancies between school policies and state law. Though the Minnesota Human Rights Act protects against discrimination based on a wide range of categories including disability, national origin, status in regard to public assistance, and sexual orientation and gender identity, most anti-harassment policies in Minnesota schools only cover the federally recognized categories of sex, race, and religion.

We can change that this legislative session. The legislature is considering a proposal that will mean students in our state who use wheelchairs, are immigrants, are poor, or are gay will also be protected. We need to set the terms for acceptable behavior in our schools by naming these categories. Why? Because bullies listen carefully. If we are hesitant to specify “disability” or “national origin” or “sexual orientation,” the bullies will beat us to it -- and the words they use will not be respectful but mocking. And, in the absence of firm consequences, their taunts can escalate to hazardous levels.

Amy is now a successful adult, but I will not consider her GED graduation complete until all young people in Minnesota have safe school environments in which to learn. My new spouse and I are now Amy’s legal parents. The legacy I hope we can leave her is the knowledge that the rule of law -- not the code of the streets -- will have her back and the back of every bullied student.
White lives in Minneapolis and is the former School Policy Advisor for Rainbow Families, the Midwest Office of Family Equality Council. For more information on the statewide proposal, visit www.familyequality.org/rainbowfamilies.
Copyright © 2009 by the Minnesota Editorial Forum. 4/09