Stopping the violent cycle of school bullying
May 8, 2009
With the recent news of several youth suicides that followed bullying for gender-nonconforming behavior, so many of us have sought out ideas on how to stop this cycle of violence. Kim Westheimer has worked with the HRC Foundation's Welcoming Schools initiative. She submits this post for reflection following her visit to a community forum discussing Carl Walker Hoover.
"Carl Walker Hoover’s gender performance didn’t fit the status quo." - Reverend Irene Monroe "Carl was a kind-hearted, sensitive boy” – Sirdeaner Walker, Carl's mother Last week I attended an anti-bullying community forum and vigil that was held in the wake of the suicide of Carl Walker Hoover, an eleven-year-old boy whose suicide and history of being bullied in school has made national news. As Sirdeaner Walker, Carl’s mother, and Rev. Monroe, a speaker on the panel, said, Carl did not fit the status quo of what it means to be a boy. Therefore he was bullied and called ‘gay,’ ‘a girl,’ and a ‘faggot.’ My heart went out to Siredeaner. In one week she had to cut the electrical wire that her son had used to kill himself from around his neck and bury him. On top of that she’s been interviewed by the likes of Oprah, Ellen, Essence Magazine and CNN. I’m not sure how she has the strength to stand up in front of anyone. At the forum, Sirdeanerspoke a little bit about Carl. He loved to read. She described his smile and his kindness, telling the crowd about a family get-together where Carl gave away his bicycle helmet to a cousin so that she would be protected. His kind action that day resulted in a trip to the hospital; he fell off the bike and injured himself. Sirdeaneralso described the litany of actions she had taken to protect Carl. She sent him to a charter school that she thought would be good for him. She was active in the school’s PTO. She called the school so often that the receptionist knew her voice and would always ask her something to the effect of, "Which administrator do you want to speak with today?” The day he killed himself, he had been the target of a bullying incident and she planned on taking Carl with her to the school to talk with the principal. Carl died before she could tell him that. I had the feeling that Siredeaner wanted to make sure people knew that she was not a passive bystander to her son’s suffering. It was painful to imagine that she had to prove herself in the public spotlight at a time like this. It is tragic that it takes an incident like this to shine a public light on bullying and gender non-conformity. For the past two years I’ve been working on HRC’s Welcoming Schools Program. It’s a program designed to help elementary schools shed light on these topics – by addressing family diversity, gender stereotyping and bullying.
Teacher and parent Emmy Howe, one of the authors of the Welcoming Schools Guide, was adamant that the guide address gender stereotyping. She likes to think of young people who do not fit gender norms as “gender expansive” and sees them as gifts to their families and the communities they live in. Emmy reminds adults that we can learn from the courage it takes for young people to be themselves. It’s time we take Emmy’s advice and allow gender expansive youth to enrich our lives instead of allowing them to be tormented until they take their own lives. HRC has been piloting and evaluating Welcoming Schools for the past two years. During that time we’ve seen educators and administrators become more open to creating environments that support gender expansiveness. We’ve seen schools engage educators, families and students in conversations about gender, sexual orientation, race, poverty and family structure. Educators, administrators and families generally want what’s best for children. This desire to support children was evident in the Welcoming Schools pilot schools. A principal from one of these schools recalled the reaction of one of her staff members at a community meeting that addressed LGBT topics:
"[The staff member] was definitely out of her comfort zone. . . I've worked with her for years and respect her greatly, but haven't sensed any sympathy for this subject before. You could even see from her body language that she was uncomfortable in the beginning. As the day went on, she became more and more relaxed and responsive. When I talked to her at the end, she said, "We have to do this type of lesson for the kids. It doesn't matter what we think of their families, we are responsible to teach them and make them feel safe and valued. They belong to our community and we have to protect them."
If only Carl had been protected at school. If only he had known that he was not alone. There are others like him who pushed the boundaries of gender and survived elementary and middle-school bullying. Some identify as LGBTQ and some do not. Their stories were also heard at the forum that honored Carl and was a call to action. Young women and men had stories of being bullied in elementary school for having voices that were too high, for having voices that were too low, for being making hand movements that were considered effeminate, for hanging out with girls, for hanging out with boys. Many of them are part of a wonderful youth group called OutNow which is located in the city where Carl lived, Springfield, Massachusetts. Some of them are part of gay straight alliances. They have found strength in themselves, in each other and in their activism. One young adult said he had also thought of committing suicide when he was around Carl’s age. At the age of 19 he is a community organizer and is grateful that he did not follow through with his suicide plan. He is proud of his accomplishments and he wished that Carl could also have discovered what is possible in life. Another young person said that he used to be bullied for being effeminate and then he started bullying others in elementary school. As he got older he changed his behaviors and found friend who accepted him for who is. He apologized to the students he used to bully and became best friends with one of them. I thought of this young man, when I saw a news reports about Carl’s death in which Sirdeaner was shown looking at sympathy cards from his classmates. One student wrote “I am sorry for making fun of Carl.” This student will never have the chance to apologize to Carl. It’s time to stop this cycle of violence.