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Gay suicide: Addressing harassment in schools

Published April 24, 2009 5:29 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2009, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The affect of language and behavior can be deadly, especially in a school environment where young people are already highly impressionable and vulnerable. Unfortunately, this difficult lesson has been conveyed many times when young people resort to drastic and permanent measures to escape the despair of enduring constant bullying and harassment at school.

It is deeply disturbing that on April 6, Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, an 11-year-old sixth-grader from Springfield, Mass., hanged himself with an extension cord in his family's home after being subjected to continuous anti-gay bullying and harassment at his middle school. It is equally as disheartening that on April 16, less than two weeks later, Jaheem Herrera, an 11-year-old fifth-grader from DeKalb County, Ga., also hanged himself at home after being the subject of anti-gay taunts from his classmates. These were two completely separate and isolated instances, but the tragic and preventable nature of each unfortunate loss of life remains the same.

Neither Carl nor Jaheem identified as gay, yet their peers' defamatory language and hurtful behaviors broke the barriers of sexual orientation and gender identity. Being taunted as "faggot," "queer" or "homo" by classmates is offensive and demeaning to any student -- straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning alike.

Carl is the fourth middle school student this year to complete suicide due to bullying, and Jaheem was still in elementary school. Older students are also at a high risk, as suicide is one of the top three causes of death among 15 to 24 year olds and the second leading cause of death on college campuses. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth are up to four times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers, and those who come from a rejecting family are up to nine times more likely to do so.

Two of the top three reasons secondary school students said their peers were most often bullied at school were actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender expression, according to a 2005 report by GLSEN and Harris Interactive. In addition, The Trevor Project fields tens of thousands of calls from young people each year, both straight and LGBT-identified, with rejection and harassment by peers being one of the top five issues reported by callers.

In the same GLSEN and Harris report, more than a third of middle and high school students said that bullying, name-calling and harassment is a somewhat or very serious problem at their school. Furthermore, two-thirds of middle school students reported being assaulted or harassed in the previous year and only 41 percent said they felt safe at school.

Enough is enough. It is time for school administrators, educators, parents, students and the government to work together to stop bullying and harassment in schools. Furthermore, we must teach young people to understand the profound impact of words and actions, and to recognize depression and suicidal ideations amongst their peers. By helping young people take responsibility for their actions and respect their peers, and simultaneously empowering them with the knowledge and skills they need to understand when their classmates are in crisis, we can work toward ending the dual epidemics of school bullying and youth suicide once and for all.

We as parents, teachers and concerned citizens can do our part to protect students by speaking out and demanding that anti-bullying and harassment programs and suicide prevention education are mandated in all schools. We can seek commitment from the government to end bullying by training educators on how to effectively intervene, teaching students to respect and help one another, and ensuring that all students know how to reach out to a peer who may be in crisis. We must lead by example and remember that the language we choose is easily repeated by young people. We must listen to children when they reach out for help, and demonstrate to them that we willbe understanding and non-judgmental if they need to talk.

Days like the GLSEN-sponsored National Day of Silence bring attention to anti-LGBT bullying and harassment in schools. On this day, thousands of students call for practical, appropriate interventions that work, hoping tomove us closer to a future where every child can go to school free from fear. Weeks including the National Suicide Prevention Week encourage programs to increase suicide prevention efforts, including initiatives supported by The Trevor Project to protect LGBT youth.

It is our hope that in memory of Carl and Jaheem, and in honor of all young people who have completed suicide after enduring constant torment at school, we will be able to work together to promote school environments that celebrate diversity and encourage acceptance of all people. Only then will we be confident that our children are receiving the respect and education they deserve today in order to become the successful and equality-minded leaders of tomorrow.

Charles Robbins is the Executive Director & CEO of The Trevor Project and Eliza Byard, Ph.D., is the Executive Director, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN).