The tragic shooting in Aurora Colorado that left 12 dead and over 50 wounded has captured our nation’s attention, and for good reason. When parents send their children to see Hollywood blockbusters, a rite of passage during summer vacation, they expect the hero to win and the violence to stay on the screen.
Columbine, the location of the 1999 high school massacre that killed 12 students and one teacher, is just 25 miles away from Aurora, a reminder of another unexpectedly dangerous environment that parents will send their children to at the end of the summer: America’s public schools.
Violent deaths at school are exceedingly rare. According to the U.S. Department of Education only 17 students ages 5 to18 were murdered in 2010. However verbal and physical harassment is all too common. Nearly one-third of students ages 12 to 18 are bullied in school, and for those who identify or are perceived to be LGBT, harassment and violence is even more common.
The 2009 National School Climate Survey from GLSEN found that nearly 9 out of 10 LGBT students in middle and high school were harassed. New research has also confirmed that even elementary students attend school in a homophobic environment: GLSEN found that the use of the word “gay” in a negative way, as in “that’s so gay,” was one of the most common forms of bias language heard regularly by nearly 50% of elementary school students and teachers. Over 25% of elementary school students and teachers also reported regularly hearing homophobic remarks like “fag” or “lesbo.”
This ridiculously high prevalence, combined with the lack of school and community response, has dire consequences. Decades of research has confirmed that LGBT youth are significantly more likely to attempt suicide and to report negative health outcomes, including higher rates of substance abuse, risky sex, depression, and other mental disorders.
There is hope. National media attention to the suicide deaths of students bullied based on their real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity is helping to create change. Parents and students are organizing effective, grassroots anti-bullying campaigns online and in communities across the country.
Additionally, the Obama administration has shown unprecedented leadership, supporting the enforcement of existing laws that protect students and two proposed federal laws—the Safe Schools Improvement Act and the Student Nondiscrimination Act—which would set the standard for school districts across the country to prohibit and report incidents of anti-LGBT bullying.
In combination with laws and policies that protect students, we also know that there are a number of resiliency factors that correlate with lower rates of risky behavior among LGBT youth. These include having a gay-straight alliance at school; having openly LGBT role models among teachers, school staff, or family; the inclusion of age-appropriate information about LGBT people and history in school curricula; and family acceptance.
The decentralized nature of America’s public school system, along with our deadlocked Congress, means that we all are going to have to rise to the challenge of ensuring that all youth attend school in a safe and supportive environment, gay or straight. We have the tools but need the political will to use them.
While the Obama and Romney campaigns have agreed to a short break out of respect for the victims of the Aurora shooting, as November approaches extremist groups will only increase their anti-LGBT rhetoric and campaign spending, using the politics of fear to prevent the implementation of programs and policies that would address and prevent bullying.
However, anyone who stands in the way, regardless of the “family values” they claim to represent, is at least enabling if not contributing to the physical and mental abuse of children in schools across the country.
The Aurora theater shooting is forcing us to ask difficult questions about how our laws, society and culture enable such horrific tragedies. As summer vacation comes to an end this is also the time to ask how we can stand by while school bullying has such devastating affects on all youth, gay or straight.