Brunswick Junior High School got some bad news this week.
Despite having state-of-the-art anti-bullying policies and despite holding assemblies, posting signs and training staff about preventing bullying and harassment, the school didn’t do enough to protect a boy who was picked on by his peers because of his perceived sexual orientation, the Maine Human Rights Commission concluded.
The commission was referring to one student in only one school, but every school ought to be paying attention. It’s a school’s responsibility to pay attention to its own culture of tolerance, and if the climate becomes hostile, the school can be held liable for violating a student’s civil rights.
The complaint was presented by a former Brunswick Junior High student who says he was bullied and harassed for more than two years.
The student reported what was going on, and school officials responded. But where the school went wrong, according to the commission’s investigator, was treating the complaints as isolated incidents instead of a pervasive pattern. The school “did not do enough in this instance,” she found.
The message that all Maine schools should get from this decision is that they are responsible for their school’s environment. Surveys conducted by the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network show that Maine schools do not feel safe for many students.
Eighty-seven percent of Maine students said they had heard homophobic slurs used in school, and nearly as many said they had heard negative remarks about students whose gender expression – the way they dressed, talked or interacted with others – was considered not masculine or feminine enough. Nearly a quarter of the students surveyed said they’d heard school staff make negative comments about students’ gender expression, and 17 percent said they had heard homophobic remarks from staff.
Many Maine lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students surveyed say they were physically harassed or abused, while nearly all say they felt deliberately excluded by peers and had been the subject of rumors or lies.
Schools have a responsibility to not only tell students that such behavior is unacceptable, but also to recognize it when it is happening and hold the perpetrators responsible.
According to the state investigator’s report, Brunswick school officials treated the repeated occurrences of harassment as a problem affecting one specific student. They even created a system where he could arrive late, leave late and walk the halls with an adult escort. The student chose not to participate in the plan, and it’s easy to see why. He was being treated as if he were the problem.
Every school should be confronting a culture that treats any variation from the majority in perceived sexual orientation and gender expression to be alien and worthy of contempt.
When someone comes forward with complaints of harassment, especially repeated complaints involving multiple harassers, it should not be treated as one student’s problem.
Schools that fail to learn this lesson may find themselves in court.