David had been in his new high school for only about two weeks when the rumors started that he was gay. Within days after the rumors began, David began hearing slurs directed at him in the hallways, in the cafeteria, in classrooms when teachers were out of the room, and in the bathrooms. Over the next several weeks, more and more students said these slurs to David's face; at the same time the slurs became more and more graphic and hostile. This constant humiliating and degrading language continued throughout the fall; however, at the end of October, the first of the far more serious incidents occurred.
David lived with his mother and brother in an apartment across the street from the school's athletic fields. At the end of the school day, as he stepped into the street on his way to his apartment, David heard a car engine revving at an unusually high pitch. At first, he did not think anything of it. But by the time he was halfway across, the engine noise was much louder, and he turned to see a car bearing down on him at a very fast speed. He started to walk quickly and then finally to run. As he stepped onto the curb, the car brushed his backpack, spinning him around 180 degrees and causing him to fall to the ground. As he looked up, he saw two classmates in the car. The student on the passenger side made eye contact with him and, using an antigay slur, yelled, “Run, David, run!” David got up and did just that; he ran to his second-floor apartment and spent the next hour and a half looking out the window to see if these two boys would return. He was hoping that the boys did not know where he lived. David did not tell any adult within or outside the school about this incident.
The verbal harassment continued every day throughout the rest of the fall. However, in his Spanish class, two other boys engaged in a far more aggressive pattern of harassment toward David. Whenever the teacher stepped out of the room for a minute or turned to write something on the board, these two boys would either whisper jokes about David or would get out of their chairs and tape messages to his desk or to his back. The messages contained degrading antigay comments. Shortly before the Christmas recess, the Spanish class went to the home economics room to prepare a Spanish meal. David was standing next to some other students preparing vegetables. When the teacher stepped out of the room for a minute, David heard his name called. Turning, David saw one of the boys who had been harassing him standing in front of him holding a paring knife less than an inch from David's throat. The boy looked straight at David and asked, “Want me to cut your throat and put you out of your misery?” David described this scene as if it were occurring in slow motion. Time seemed to slow down; no one did or said anything. Then the teacher walked back into the room. Time speeded up and everybody went back to their places and acted as if nothing had happened. Again, David did not tell any adult at the school about this incident.
Early in January after the Christmas break, David was coming out of the boys' bathroom when a much larger and older student bumped into him and told him, using graphic, degrading antigay language, that people like him should not use the boys' bathroom and that instead he should use the girls' bathroom. The student went on to tell David that if he ever found him in the boys' bathroom again, he would seriously beat him. Again, David did not tell any adults about what had happened.
A couple of weeks later David finally told his mother about these incidents. She immediately went to school officials and to law enforcement authorities. At that point, the school reacted aggressively to address the specific incidents; the local police department investigated, and the Attorney General's Office filed a civil rights enforcement action in court.
Approximately a month after the case had ended, I called David's mother to see how he was doing. When I made the call, I believed that the system had reacted extremely well in addressing David's needs. David's mother, however, changed those assumptions. She told me that David was not doing very well and that he would be going into the hospital the next morning for reconstructive surgery on his bowels. It turned out that beginning in October, shortly after the incident when he had almost been run over by a car, David had stopped going to the bathroom in school because he believed the bathroom was not a safe place for him. The problem was compounded because David started getting to school an hour early and leaving one to two hours late in order to avoid walking home when other students were around. David did this to minimize the chance of experiencing another violent incident like the one that occurred when the two classmates tried to run him over. The combination of not going to the bathroom for 10 to 11 hours a day and the anxiety and fear that David experienced created serious intestinal problems that ultimately required surgery. David continues to suffer the effects of those intestinal problems and likely will do so for the rest of his life.
David's story, unfortunately, is not unique. Many students feel a similar reluctance to disclose harassment to adults, leading to two serious consequences. First, as was discussed in Chapter 1 and is illustrated by David's own experiences, verbal harassment can escalate to threats and to violence unless adults within the school confront it. Second, the emotional and physical effects of harassment, if harassment is allowed to continue day after day, week after week, and month after month, can grow in severity. Both of these consequences emphasize the critical importance of administrators, faculty, and staff working to create a climate that maximizes the possibility of early disclosure of harassment.
Students' Reluctance To Disclose Harassment
As discussed in Chapter 3, whether students are victims of harassment or bystanders, they are reluctant to disclose harassment for similar reasons:
- They fear retaliation from students if they report incidents to adults.
- They fear that adults in the school will treat the harassment as if it is only a minor problem.
Data gathered by William Preble and others demonstrate that students become increasingly reluctant to report harassment as they move into higher grades (2002). Many students, both victims and bystanders, are reluctant to report harassment when they do not see a clear and firm commitment on the part of the school to aggressively deal with harassment, threats, and violence.
Maximizing the Possibility of Early Disclosure
Administrators, teachers and other staff, and students can work to create a school climate that provides students who are the victims of harassment with the confidence to disclose that harassment to someone else. Just as important, for students who either learn of harassment directly from a friend or see harassment occurring in the halls, a civil and respectful climate can encourage them to disclose what occurred. It is hard to overestimate the importance of students' providing information to adults about harassment at an early point. Only early intervention can stop the pattern of escalation from words to stronger words, to threats, to violence. Early intervention also can save some students from having to experience the fear, anger, and loss of hope that often result from harassment. It is almost certain that, with early intervention, David would not have had to undergo surgery or experience a life filled with medical problems. With early intervention, students at countless other schools would not have to experience the physical damage and emotional scars of ongoing, terrifying, and humiliating harassment.
- Superintendents, principals, and other school administrators have the power to create a school climate that not only treats harassment as a serious problem but also cultivates the innate courage and leadership of students. When administrators immediately respond to harassment, they send a message to students that they will listen and respond to complaints. Students then will be more willing to report incidents of harassment to teachers and administrators. Administrators should take a number of concrete steps to demonstrate their commitment to creating safe and respectful schools.
Working in tandem with school boards, administrators should create clear and explicit antiharassment policies and then ensure that those policies are effectively enforced. Administrators should also regularly provide messages to faculty, staff, students, and parents about the destructive power of harassment and the importance of everyone in the school community working to create a safe and respectful school climate. Administrators can speak to the entire school, send letters to parents and community members, bring in outside speakers and presenters, and act in countless other ways to become leaders in an effort to create respectful and civil school environments. Just as important, administrators should provide training and workshops to their faculty and staff on how to address harassment. Finally, and most important, administrators should provide support and resources for programs that help students to develop leadership skills, as well as the knowledge and confidence to intervene at the lower levels of harassment before it escalates to more serious misconduct.
- Teachers and staff also play a critical role in creating a climate that maximizes the possibility that students will have the confidence to disclose harassment. Perhaps most important, teachers and staff need to model for students techniques of intervening in low-key but firm ways when students use degrading language or slurs. When these incidents occur in classrooms, teachers need to take advantage of the “teachable moment” to discuss the destructive power of degrading language.
- Students—particularly those who participate in peer leader programs—can develop the knowledge, confidence, and skills to intervene when verbal harassment occurs and to report to an adult when they believe that harassment has escalated to more serious levels. Ultimately, when students turn from mere bystanders to harassment to active citizens willing to protect others, school climate can change significantly.
Responding to Students Who May Be Victims
There is no one way for teachers, staff, and administrators to assist or respond to students who have been harassed. However, the following general guidelines can be helpful.
Relying on Instincts
Teachers, staff, and administrators develop good instincts about the young people they are working with. It is important to follow those instincts. Look for signs that a student is troubled, such as lower grades, reduced ability to concentrate, increased insecurity, dropping out of extracurricular activities, weight loss or gain, and lack of participation in class. When your instincts tell you that a student is troubled, following up is critical, even if the nature of the trouble is unknown:
- Try to talk to the student directly.
- Refer the student to the guidance counselor, social worker, school nurse, or other person to whom the student might be willing to talk.
- Create trust with students by making yourself available to talk, being honest, and showing you care about their problems.
- If the student describes harassment that appears serious or involves criminal conduct, refer the matter immediately to administrators for possible disciplinary action under antiharassment policies and for possible referral to police.
Talking with Students
Guidance counselors, social workers, school nurses, coaches, teachers, and administrators all find themselves in situations that involve talking with a student whom they believe is troubled. No single interview technique will be 100 percent successful. To talk with a student about any problem, including the possibility of bias-motivated harassment, requires that adults be flexible. They need to use their skills and intuition in finding the best way to enlist the trust and confidence of the young person to whom they are talking. Although it is unlikely that every student will disclose harassment or violence, the interviewer can do several things to maximize the possibility of disclosure.
Naming Possible Problems. Many young people experiencing harassment or violence do not believe that adults in their school will take their problem seriously. Naming potential problems can go a long way to assuring young people both that the interviewer is aware of the kind of problem they are experiencing and that it is safe to talk about it.
Teenagers who seek help frequently report a set of symptoms such as anxiety, depression, sleeplessness, and declining grades, among others. Such symptoms could be caused by bias-motivated harassment or by a range of other social or health-related problems. The interviewer can suggest to the young person that these symptoms could be caused by many factors, including, for example, sexual harassment, bias-motivated harassment, dating violence, sexual abuse, domestic violence, or substance abuse. (The interviewer could say, for example, “I know of girls who are harassed in school because others think that they are lesbians, or are being harassed and even subjected to violence by their boyfriends . . . .”) By mentioning the type of problems other students experience, the interviewer assures the student that the problem is understood to be real and substantial. Even if the student does not disclose the problem, the fact that the problem has been named and its importance validated may give the young person the confidence to disclose to someone else.
Avoiding Gender-Specific Language. In talking with a young person, it is critical to avoid using language that assumes that the student is involved in heterosexual relationships. Use of language that suggests that a young person is having dating relationships or sexual relationships with someone of the opposite sex (such as asking a girl if she is dating any boys) is likely to discourage gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or questioning students from disclosing either their sexual orientation or the existence of antigay harassment or violence. Instead, it is important to develop a vocabulary that is gender-neutral. For example, the interviewer may ask a girl whether she is dating “anyone” or whether she is engaged in sexual activity with “anyone.” Generally, heterosexual students will not be aware of the language shift, but gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender/questioning students will clearly interpret this as an important signal: that it is safe to talk about issues of sexual orientation, including antigay harassment.
Avoiding Promises That Can't Be Kept. In the years I directed the Civil Rights Unit within the State Attorney General's Office, one of the few rules I provided to prosecutors was never to make a promise that they could not keep. This rule meant never to promise confidentiality.
Everyone who works with young people—whether as educators, health professionals, or police officers—has one clear, overriding responsibility: to protect the safety of the children with whom they work. Whenever a student discloses something that involves a risk of physical or emotional danger either to that student or to someone else, responsible adults must take the appropriate action to make sure that our young people are safe. Moreover, it is appropriate to take a conservative view of what constitutes a risk to safety, given the escalation that can occur from relatively minor levels of verbal harassment to more serious verbal harassment, to threats, to violence. Given the destructive, and even life-threatening, physical and mental effects of harassment on our young people, acting on information concerning harassment toward students must occur at the earliest moment and in the most appropriate way.
Many people are concerned that young persons will refuse to disclose their problems if their request for confidentiality cannot be honored. Although this happens on occasion, in my experience it happens only rarely. Most students who ask a teacher to keep harassment confidential are really asking for two contradictory things. First, they are asking for secrecy; second, they are asking for help. These students want someone to stop the harassment. Teachers can use a number of different approaches to help students become comfortable with reporting harassment to the appropriate person:
- Teachers can ask students what worries them about reporting harassment. Most often students are afraid of retaliation. Teachers can explain that retaliation usually does not occur when schools react firmly and quickly, but that harassment will most likely continue and may escalate to something far more serious if nothing is done.
- Teachers can strategize with students about different ways to report harassment to school administrators (or to police if the harassment involves threats or violence).
- Teachers can offer to go with students to report harassment, or teachers can offer to report incidents without students present. Some students may feel more comfortable if a close friend goes with them to meet with the principal or other administrator.
No one approach will work with every student. In rare instances, no approach will succeed in making a student feel comfortable about reporting harassment. In those instances, teachers need to explain that it is their responsibility to make sure that the student is safe and that they need to report the harassment. Teachers must not take the risk of not reporting harassment—the risk that several days later they will pick up the morning newspaper and learn that the boy or girl who had spoken to them about harassment is now in the hospital being treated for a broken bone, a serious concussion, or even worse. Adults' obligation is to report harassment immediately—with or without the agreement of the student.
Addressing Parents' Concerns. Sometimes parents will accompany their child to a meeting with a counselor or an administrator. Moreover, some parents request or even demand that they be present during interviews with their child. It is extremely important to conduct interviews with young people who are expressing stress and anxiety outside the presence of parents. It is unlikely that a student will disclose violence or sexual abuse in the home while a parent is present. Similarly, for many gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender or questioning children, the disclosure of antigay, bias-motivated harassment in front of their parent may “out” the students to their parent and create issues of safety in the home.
One way to address concerns of parents is to provide them an opportunity to discuss their issues or observations at the beginning of the meeting and then to have them wait outside while the student is interviewed. It is also helpful to explain to the parent that it is the school's policy in all instances to have these types of meetings with the student alone.
Preble, W., Taylor, L., & Langdon, S. (2002). When no one is watching: School climate research from 30 schools. Keynote address, Annual Summer Institute, New England College, Henniker, NH.