Break the Silence and Make School Safe for All Kids!

On January 2 1997, 14-year old Robbie Kirkland committed suicide after a four-year struggle to accept and find peace with his homosexuality.

Robbie’s family loved, accepted, and supported him, but that wasn’t enough, because every day Robbie had to go to school and face the rejection and anti-gay harassment that take place in our middle schools: name calling, taunts, pushing and tripping, and exclusion.

Over time, this treatment leaves children like Robbie feeling ashamed, insecure, unworthy, alone, and ultimately vulnerable to self-destructive behaviors.

On April 6, 2009, Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, an 11-year-old boy, hanged himself after enduring daily anti-gay bullying at school. His mother said Carl, who did not identify himself as gay, was a slight boy who loved his schoolwork and had suffered endless taunts since he started sixth grade in September, bombarded by his peers with “girlie,” “gay,” “fag,” and worse.

But, as Eliza Byard, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN), was quoted on the network’s website ( in April 2009, “As was the case with Carl, you do not have to identify as gay to be attacked with anti-LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender] language. From their earliest years on the school playground, students learn to use anti-LGBT language as the ultimate weapon to degrade their peers.”

The State of Our Schools

Unfortunately, Robbie’s and Carl’s stories are not unique. Every day, students who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or questioning (as many are at this age), and students who are in any way considered different, are taunted with name calling and other harassment that leaves their souls wounded.

Young people are targeted for many reasons. In GLSEN’s 2005 survey report From Teasing to Torment: School Climate in America, students reported that their peers were most often bullied because of their appearance, but the next top reason was because of actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender expression.

Because of our society’s cultural discomfort with issues of sexuality and gender, many educators ignore the bullying behavior or don’t know how to intervene. By far the most common form of this failure to intervene at the middle level is when teachers, who would most often confront instances of racist, ethnic, or sexist name calling, make little to no effort to intervene when they hear anti-gay name calling or jokes, including “That’s so gay.” (See the GLSEN Research Brief, The Experiences of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Middle School Students: Findings from the 2007 National School Climate Survey.)

Some educators may feel uncomfortable addressing these issues because of their own beliefs about homosexuality and gender identity; they may believe that by saying something, they compromise their own values. For others, fear may keep them from intervening—fear of being ostracized by colleagues or harassed by parents, fears for their job security if they speak up, and fears about raising controversial issues.

For many, it is their own lack of knowledge about homosexuality and gender identity (because of our society’s dearth of knowledge in schools and in teacher preparation programs) and therefore their uncertainty about how to handle these issues that keep them from intervening.

However, teachers are the adults in our schools and must confront their own issues and move beyond them to protect the students in their care.

When educators don’t intervene, they give tacit assent that saying these things is okay. They also give an unspoken message to the LGBT or “different” youth that they are not worth standing up for. Thus begins the erosion of self-worth that so often leads young people to engage in self-destructive behaviors, including alcohol and other substance abuse, self-mutilation, and suicide attempts.

When this verbal harassment is not addressed at the middle grades level, it most often escalates to physical violence at the high school level.

The shame of ridicule and the fear of a verbal or physical attack make school a frightening place. These students stop coming to school. When they do come, they spend a great deal of time and energy determining when and where to be in the school—hallways, locker rooms, bathrooms—so they can avoid harassment. There is little energy left to learn.

This climate often leads to despair and a sense of worthlessness that has a negative impact on these youngsters’ motivation and desire to achieve and, for some, the motivation to live.

Break the Silence

Individual teachers must make the important effort to break the silence and confront these issues in the school. We must intervene whenever we witness harassment or hear name calling such as “faggot” or “fatso” or “spic” or “retard” or “That’s so gay.” However, we cannot just say, “Don’t say that” or “That’s not nice” at the middle school level; it doesn’t work as it did when children were in elementary school.

Young adolescents are at a crucial time in their cognitive and moral development when they are questioning, testing, and building their beliefs, attitudes, and values for their lifetimes, so we must take the time to help them become the kind of young people we want them to be by talking about our differences and our uniquenesses and how we are all part of our caring community.

Teachers must know how to create the kind of school community in which a response to name calling such as, “We don’t hurt each other this way in our caring community,” has credibility and effect. Here are some suggestions:

That’s So Gay

The expression “That’s so gay” is one of the most often- heard phrases in school, and students certainly recognize it as derogatory—not even having anything to do with homosexuality. Its use has become pervasive as a put-down for anything not cool or not OK.

A student says, “This assignment is so gay.” To the casual listener not sensitive to the words, the expression is heard as a put-down and no big deal. But to students who are questioning their sexual orientation or perhaps have a gay parent, relative, or friend, this seemingly innocuous phrase can be frightening and hurtful.

So, what we must do is strip the word “gay” of its negative connotation and, at the same time, help our young people be more careful and specific in their use of the English language. Here’s an example:

You come upon Ashley who has just declared that an assignment you gave is “so gay!” So you ask a question: “What do you mean by that, Ashley?” Ashley will probably respond that the assignment is stupid. You ask another question: “What do you mean by that, Ashley?”

After some back and forth, Ashley will finally admit the fact that she doesn’t understand the assignment or that it’s too hard. At that point, you can say, “I see that you’re not sure about what to do with this assignment. How can I help?”

You might be thinking that you don’t have time for this back and forth or that this strategy would not make a difference with your students.

First, you must make time if you wish to make a difference in the language kids are using and in the climate of your classroom. Second, it doesn’t take long to make a difference in the whole class. It certainly worked in my middle grades classroom. Within a week of my always asking, “What do you mean by that?” students were self- correcting and soon stopped using that phrase altogether. Other teachers have shared stories of similar success.

No Name Calling

When students use epithets such as “faggot” or “fatso” or “spic” or “retard,” they often are not considering that their target is a person with feelings. Here’s a technique that’s been successful in my classroom and in the classrooms of other teachers with whom I’ve shared the strategy.

Let’s say you overhear Alison saying to a group of other girls, “Sarah is so disgusting! She’s so fat her blubber hangs out of her clothes! She should buy her clothes in a fat ladies’ store.”

You could say, “Don’t say that, Alison. That’s not nice to say about anybody.” But what Alison probably would say to herself is, “Oh, that’s right, don’t say those things within Ms. Smith’s earshot.”

Or, you could try this: “Alison, I have a friend who has struggled with her weight all her life. Her feelings are hurt when unthinking people make unkind comments about her weight, and it hurts me to see my friend hurt because I care about her. Just like I wouldn’t want anyone to say anything unkind about you because I care about you, I’m going to ask you not to say that again. OK?” My students have always answered, “OK.”

Another example: In the hallway, you overhear Adam call Jeremy a “faggot.” You say, “Adam, I have a friend who is gay and who has had to deal with name calling all his life. He has been hurt when unthinking people have made unkind comments about him and not seen him for the wonderful person he is. It hurts me to see my friend hurt because I care about him. And, just like I wouldn’t want anyone to say anything unkind about you because I care about you, I’m going to ask you not to say that again. OK?”

Our students answer “OK,” because 1) what else are they going to say at that moment? and 2) they are now pausing to think about the fact that their teacher cares about them and other people. We are simply saying, “All people deserve respect and are respected in this classroom, including you!” This is one of the most profound messages our students need to hear every day.

Conclusion and More to Come

When we overcome our own fears and uncertainty about how to intervene in these kinds of situations so common in our middle grades schools, we are giving clear signals to all students, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity or gender expression, that they are valuable and valued members of our school community.

Published in Middle Ground magazine, October 2011. This article is one of three published on the topic of school safety.

Norma J. Bailey is a professor of middle level education in the Department of Teacher Education and Professional Development at Central Michigan University, Mt. Pleasant. She is a frequent presenter at the AMLE Annual Conference. E-mail