Just after 7 a.m. today, I found myself driving a minivan full of middle-school students. This still-dark-outside carpool duty frustrated me for two reasons. First, I was up late last night watching my suddenly vintage Texas Rangers throw batting practice to the San Francisco Giants. Second, a school bus that my children could ride for free stops just down the street from my house.
“Why not let your kids ride the bus?” a logical person might ask.
In fact, a logical person (at least I consider myself logical) asked his wife that very question. The logical person’s wife assured him that the carpool is the best solution to the foul-mouthed bullies who were harassing our 13-year-old son on the bus. She’d tried calling the bus driver and transportation director. That didn’t really fix the problem. I proposed that I might make a single visit to the bus and employ a baseball bat. For some reason, the logical person’s wife didn’t think that was the best idea, either.
So here we are.
So, if you ask me, “Are bullies a problem at school?” I’d answer yes. If you ask me, “Are schools doing all they can to prevent this problem?” I’d answer no. I’m not at all surprised to see this CNN report this week:
Half of all high school students say they have bullied someone in the past year, with nearly as many saying they have been the victims of bullying, according to a new study released this week.
But if you ask me to tie school bullying to religion, I’d be more hard-pressed to answer definitively. My son’s bullies certainly don’t use any kind of language that I’ve ever heard from the pulpit.
Yet the national media narrative on bullying keeps focusing on what NPR this week described as “growing concern that there may be a religious undercurrent to the harassment of teens who are seen as gay.” Surely the flood of headlines making that case has nothing to do with the “growing concern.”
Actually, NPR religion reporter Barbara Bradley Hagerty’s report is pretty good — much better than most that I have read on this subject.
For one thing, she uses real-life examples rather than vague generalities:
Consider Justin Anderson, who graduated from Blaine High School outside Minneapolis last year. He says his teenage years were a living hell. From sixth grade on, he heard the same taunts.
“People say things like, ‘Fags should just disappear so we don’t have to deal with them anymore’; and, ‘Fags are disgusting and sinful,’ ” he told the Anoka-Hennepin School Board. “And still, there was no one intervening. I began to feel so worthless and ashamed and unloved that I began to think about taking my life.”
Anderson told his story at a public hearing last month — a hearing convened because in the past year, the district has seen a spate of student suicides. Four of those suicides have been linked to anti-gay bullying.
Justin Anderson survived. Justin Aaberg did not. Aaberg, 15, loved the cello, both playing and composing numbers like “Incinerate,” which he posted on YouTube. Justin was openly gay. He had plenty of friends, but he was repeatedly bullied in his school. In July, his mother, Tammy, found her teenage son hanging from his bed frame.
“They were calling him, ‘Faggot, you’re gay,’ ” she recalls. ” ‘The Bible says that you’re going to burn hell.’ ‘God doesn’t love you.’ Things like that.”
“Fags are disgusting and sinful.” “God doesn’t love you.” Such taunts certainly legitimize the question of religion’s role.
But the anonymous they nature of the bullies makes it impossible to really know what role religion played in these specific cases. Therein lies the rub. If you see any media reports that interview actual bullies, I’d love to hear their perspective on how their faith influences them to call classmates “faggots” and tell them to burn in hell. I am only half-joking.
Concerning the “spate of suicides”: How many is a spate? What is the overall student population? How do suicides in this district compare with national averages? Are suicides up in this district? If so, why?
More from the NPR report:
Tammy Aaberg says the school never called her, even after her son was physically assaulted. She was furious at first, but then began to understand why.
“A lot of teachers do care and do want to do something, but they’re afraid to lose their job if they step in and they’re not neutral,” she says.
Aaberg says teachers felt they couldn’t get involved — even when her son was bullied — because of the school district’s “neutrality policy,” which prohibits employees from taking sides on matters regarding sexual orientation. The district says the policy is meant to apply to the curriculum. But teachers say it’s so broadly written that they’re loath to intervene even when they hear anti-gay slurs.
Look up cop-out in your dictionary. That’s my reaction to any teacher or school official who would refuse to deal with a physical assault because of a “neutrality policy.” Give me a break.
Of course, the story relies entirely on the mother’s version of events. There’s no response from a teacher or school official. I’d love to hear firsthand from a teacher, “Yes, we knew that this child had been attacked on the playground, but the neutrality policy kept us from doing anything. Hopefully, we can change school policy to allow us to keep bullies from beating up students at our school.”
The report quotes officials from the Minnesota Family Council, “an evangelical group,” as well as the Family Research Council, also identified as “evangelical.” In both cases, more detailed descriptions of the groups involved would be helpful, as evangelical can mean so many different things.
Likewise, the story features the “Christian” mother of an 11-year-old boy who committed suicide. Again, more detailed information on the family’s religious background — and their specific faith group’s teachings on homosexuality — would be helpful.
Hagerty ends her piece this way:
And yet, despite the shifting views and alliances, there is an ongoing dilemma: How do parents and schools protect vulnerable kids without turning schools into a battleground for the culture wars?