— Time for a “GLSEN Spring?” Anti-bullying & My UU Church on TV

March 11, 2012 at 1:58 pm | Posted in Online Ministry | Leave a comment

On March 10, a local chapter of the national Gay, Lesbian Student Network held an anti-bullying conference at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington, VA. It opened with a panel of six students who named several area schools where they experience primarily anti-gay bullying. These student leaders are champions of truth and often stand alone against substantial pressures.The Washington DC Fox News channel covered the panel. You can watch it on this page. It is the first video at the top of the right column. Or, watch it on the Fox News site.

Many victims won’t tell parents or school personnel when bullying occurs. They may be too afraid to stick up for themselves and for others. Meanwhile, so often when they do speak out, adults fail them.

That’s why students like those on the conference panel are heros. They speak for those who cannot. They talk to administrators, educators, and parents. Some of the schools represented by the panelists have done a great job of creating safe environments. But just as many have not.

I’m not a parent. But I am a caring resident who lives near Langley High School in McLean, VA. Many families of diplomats, politicians and CIA and military personnel live and school their kids there. One of the panelists described several incidents at Langley where he was attacked, verbally abused, manhandled and more. He spoke to teachers and school administrators.

He was told to stay away from those kids. Translation: His existence caused others to commit violence. He was the problem. Another adult in the audience stood up to say that he was appalled that his tax dollars supported schools that perpetuate bullying.

Sounds like a particular episode in the TV show, Glee, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, Glee reflects what is going on at schools nationwide – in so many ways.

The Langely student filed police reports. Upshot: He changed schools.

The panel students were composed, articulate, and respectful of process to make change happen. They may be more mature than me.

I asked about tweeting. I suggested they create hashtags on Twitter, so that as bullying occurs in real-time, the students could tweet to the hashtag. (A hashtag is a Twitter technique used in messages. The tag enables the message, or tweet, to broadcast information instantaneously to anyone who follows that hashtag. In this case, the hashtag could be #BullyReports, or #BullyReportsVA.)

I would follow that hashtag. Wouldn’t you? When an incident is happening, I’d grab a cell phone and call the school. If warranted, I’d drive over there as well.

There are policies in schools that restrict access to phones and their use. This means that twitter ain’t an academic school activity.

Langely, for example, recently posted to its website that the school has adopted recommended practices by the Fairfax County school system. “Students will be able to use their devices in specific places and at specific times at LHS,” it says on its website. The school has a color coded alert system that tells students where and when mobile device usage is permitted. It only allows general use in the cafeteria and during the time when students are passing in between classes.

For the former Langely student panelist, the color codes could have left him black and blue. Locker-room bullying doesn’t fit the green-use alert. The other colors restrict usage to classrooms and, in some cases, if also allowed by the teacher.

Again, the students on the panel who reported teachers calling them fags, appear to be left vulnerable.

To me, it’s pretty simple: Until all public schools have a zero-tolerance policy for bullying, mobile devices should be used whenever and wherever bullying occurs.

This is easier said than done. Just like a deer in a headlight, a student can be paralyzed by fear and stunned by aggression. Witnesses, however, would have something they could do quickly.

I’m sure that some educators in the conference audience weren’t too happy with my Twitter suggestion even though they were horrified by the panel’s stories and are themselves committed to ending bullying.

I’ve worked with k-12 public educators for several years to make safe, private social learning networks online for them, students, and administrators. I know how complex the issues of student safety are. Meanwhile, many adults assume kids will act out and cause more harm when given more freedom with technology. In my experience, statistically, it’s the opposite. Adults are the problem.

I returned home from the GLSEN panel and turned to technology to figure out a potential aide to combat bullying. A few years ago, a Kenyan journalist and few engineers created an “incident” report system to arm citizens of Kenya with a way to report eye-witness accounts of political unrest. They wanted to speak truth to fellow citizens and to the powers that covered up or denied actions by government.

They created a platform, Ushahidi.com, that plots incidents to Google maps, along with descriptions of what’s occurring in those locations. Ushahidi means “testimony” in Swahili. Anyone can use Ushahidi.com to create websites for various information and incident tracking needs. Washington DC, for example, has used it for citizen reporting of road conditions in bad weather.

Within an hour, I had a Ushahidi-based bully reporting system. It’s not visible to the general public. I made it to illustrate a point. I hope to discuss it with GLSEN officials and educators. I’m sure there’s a way to build a system that would empower its users without becoming itself a bully pulpit for false accusations and reports.

With a nod toward the Middle East, isn’t it time for a GLSEN spring? Bullying is terrorism. Right here. Right now. Down the block. And in cherished sacred space: Schools.

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