U.K. Professor and homophobic bullying expert Ian Rivers examines the focus on anti-gay student bullying by the Obama administration’s Education Department, and that of his native U.K.’s.
A few weeks ago I was fortunate enough to be invited to attend the Second Annual Partners in Bullying Prevention Summit in Washington, D.C. (I was in the capital for another meeting). Although not a resident in the U.S., I currently work with some of the America’s finest anti-bullying researchers, advocates and activists on two CDC expert panels: one to explore the link between bullying and youth suicide, the other to determine a uniform definition of bullying for inclusion on public health surveillance.
Although the summit had been planned many months in advance it fell only two days after the reported suicide of 14-year-old Jamey Rodemeyer who had been the victim of gay slurs online. Jamey’s death only reinforced the need for summits of this nature where researchers, advocates, practitioners and activists can come together and share best practices, supported by key agencies and members of the Cabinet. As a U.K. citizen it was a great privilege for me to listen to Secretary Sebelius and Secretary Duncan talk about the importance of bullying interventions.
I was incredibly impressed by the fact that both Kathleen Sebelius and Arne Duncan placed the discrimination of LGBT youth at the very forefront of their speeches. I reflected upon the fact that it would not happen in the U.K. today. Homophobic bullying, although identified as a priority by the coalition government in its 2010 white paper “The Importance of Teaching”, has resulted in very little other than a half-hearted and totally unmanageable requirement that primary and secondary schools address the needs of LGBT children and traveller children in their classes or be penalized at inspection.
Further, a perusal of the recent speeches of our own U.K. Secretary of Education, Michael Gove, demonstrate that there is no appetite to take on this important issue, primarily because we have “done” bullying in the U.K. Over twenty years of research and intervention have not changed the school experiences of many young people. It has been left to the not-for-profit sector to take up the gauntlet and keep the issue alive and our children and young people safe. In this time of austerity would the U.K. Government pay for a two-day conference to listen and learn from those who are daily working to keep young people from the very brink of despair? Most probably not, and yet there is something to be learned from my experience in America.
The summit was two days of highly charged discussions with contributions from parents who had lost their children, young people who had been the victims of bullying (and those were brave enough to identify themselves as bullies), as well as advocates and researchers. Paid for by the U.S. taxpayer, supported by two members of President Obama’s cabinet, and with keynote addresses from the CEO’s of teachers’ unions, senior members of the attorney general’s staff and Congresswoman Linda T. Sanchez, this was a bringing together or minds.
While there are some detractors who see this summit as an attempt to politicize bullying and school safety and to push various agendas forward, the fact that the government is willing to listen and learn, admittedly only from a select few, is positive and laudable.
I was honored that Secretary Duncan identified my work and that of my colleague Jaana Juvonen at UCLA in his speech, and the initial glow of recognition was soon dispelled by the realization that my job is not done. I am working hard on understanding the impact bullying has on children and young people other than victims and bullies. All too often we forget there are witnesses who are themselves traumatized by what they see and what they hear.
Visit StopBullying.gov for more resources.
Ian Rivers is Professor of Human Development at Brunel University, London. He is the author of ‘Homophobic Bullying: Research and Theoretical Perspectives’ (Oxford, 2011), and has researched issues of discrimination in LGBT communities, particularly among children and young people, for nearly two decades.
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