Utah advocates say anti-bullying law could 'out' LGBT kids
Layton • Christine D'Arco remembers high school as a place where she passed groups of people whispering about her, softball teammates wouldn't let her change clothes alongside them in the locker room and everywhere kids said she was a lesbian.
"I felt like I was going into a little prison," she said. "Suicide was in my mind every day. It was a very real thing for me, very real."
But she never told her parents about the bullying, and she didn't come out to her parents for years.
"I already felt like so much less; I didn't want them to see that in me," said D'Arco, now 24. If she came out, "I just felt like my relationship with my dad would have been strained."
She didn't confront the trauma from years of being bullied until after she attempted suicide at 21 and spent nine days in a hospital.
Now, if she told someone at school about the bullying, administrators would have to tell her parents, bound by a law passed this year by the Utah Legislature. Though D'Arco's orientation ultimately didn't faze her father and her family remains close, some lesbian, gay, bisexual and trangender (LBGT) activists are concerned that parental notification could inadvertently out a student, exposing them to potential rejection.
"It could really come as a shock if the parent's already thinking, 'I wonder if little Johnny is gay,' " said Marian Edmonds, the executive director of Ogden-based OUTreach. "It could turn into a bad situation â¦ especially for parents who aren't comfortable with the idea of a gay child."
And the potential for rejection is there, said Yvonne Paul, director of advocacy and education at Utah Pride. Between 30 percent and 42 percent of homeless youth in Utah are LGBT, according to research by the organization.
"The numbers tell us ... kids are being evicted from their families of origin because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, or choosing homelessness over a rejecting environment," Paul said.
Utah also has a consistently high youth suicide rate it's the No. 2 cause of death among residents ages 10 to 24.
The state's new bullying law followed the death of David Phan, a gay 14-year-old who shot himself to death at Bennion Junior High last year. Phan's family said he was the victim of bullying at school, but they hadn't been informed.
"For too many years, legislators and school districts tended to ignore this or didn't know how to address it," said Rep. Gage Froerer, R-Huntsville, who sponsored the law. "Time has run out. We really need to take action."
Utah is now one of 49 states with some kind of anti-bullying law, following a rapid spread of awareness around the country after the 1999 school shooting at Columbine High School, said Katharine Silbaugh, a professor at the Boston University School of Law and an expert on anti-bullying legislation.
"There also have been advances in the research that suggest that bullying has more long-standing and subtle impacts than was previously understood," Silbaugh said.
Most of the state laws, she said, are like the legislation passed in Utah generally aimed a promoting awareness of bullying and making it clear to parents and children that schools are taking it seriously.
"In a way, I think these laws are, in my view, very successful. They drive schools to address the issue," she said.
And parents have an important role in stopping bullying, she said. "Parents are their children's advocates ... there are a lot of decisions a kid can't make on their own," she said, such as changing schools.
And if a family does accept a gay teen, it can make a big difference, said Paul.
"We really have the power ... to change the outcome and well-being of youth when we provide families with the tools and resources to accept the LGBT [child]," she said. The risks of substance abuse, depression and suicide in a rejecting environment are nearly cut in half when families accept their children and support them, she said, citing research from the Family Acceptance Project.
"When you have affectionate and accepting families, kids are more likely to see themselves as having a happy, positive, productive future," she said.
Advocates don't want the law to change, rather, they're pushing for the adoption of guidelines for schools in informing parents when LGBT students are bullied. They want school officials to talk with the bullied students before they call the parents.
"What we're trying to do is make sure youth are safe and parents have all the information they need," said Edmonds, pointing to guidelines adopted by Massachusetts schools to make a notification plan with the student, for teachers to have training on the importance of parental acceptance and to minimize harm to the child.
Ben Horsley, a spokesman for Granite School District, said he couldn't disclose how many parents have been contacted since the law was passed but said when a school notifies parents, the type of bullying doesn't automatically come up.
"Our concern is whether a student is being bullied or not, it's not the reason why," though "what was said might be part of that conversation with parents."
At the Salt Lake City School District, Tom Sachse, a comprehensive guidance specialist, said parents were receptive at seven seminars on bullying that were offered this fall under the new law. About 200 attended, despite a tight schedule that left little time for publicity.
"One woman said maybe her son's best friend would still be alive if we had this earlier," he said. "It really struck a nerve in the community."
D'Arco also saw her brother Joseph bullied at school after a group of boys found messages on his phone indicating he was gay. His friends became his enemies and his house was egged five times.
"The more vulnerable I was, the more I felt like they were [targeting] me," he said. He didn't tell his family he was gay until he overdosed on alcohol at age 15.
Their father, Joe D'Arco, said he was never homophobic, but he did use phrases like, "that's so gay," something he regrets now.
"What's the word? Gaydar? I don't have one," said Joe D'Arco, who is retired from the Air Force and now manages a warehouse at Hill Air Force Base. "They seemed normal to me they are normal."
These days, D'Arco is secure knowing that the football-and-fishing relationship she had with her father was never at risk.
"It does get better," she said. "I wish I could let kids know that it'll be OK."