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David Baxter

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Education best weapon to combat bullying
October 21, 2007

Tulsa World, Okla. --When it comes to bullying, the victim perceives silence as support for the perpetrator. That was a key message delivered at a conference on bullying recently in Oklahoma City, said event Chairman Randy Tate.

"Stop Hate in the Hallways" was attended by 350 people, most of them educators and mental health professionals from 22 communities and 14 school districts in Oklahoma, he said.

Tate works at the North Care Center in Oklahoma City, which offers counseling and support services to individuals and families.

The taboo topics of bullying and harassment are race, religion and sexual orientation, but they are the most common subjects of bullying and harassment in schools, Tate said. Although bullying has received media attention, especially because of its possible ties to school shootings, many of the forums and workshops Tate attended in the past were "sanitized," he said. "I think they dance around the issues with regard to all three of those areas," he said.

Tate said research indicates that two-thirds of teens report being harassed or assaulted because of gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, disability or religion. "We recognize that oftentimes kids are harassed because there may be a perception that they are LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender)," he said. "What we really wanted to do was emphasize that it's not OK to harass any group."

During the 2006-07 school year, the Oklahoma State Department of Education had 12,113 incidents of bullying or harassment reported by public schools. Gayle Jones, director of comprehensive health for the department, oversees the Title IV Safe and Drug-free Schools program. "Bullying is a learned behavior. These kids have heard it, felt it, seen it, suffered it from long before they walk in the door," Jones said.

Prevention -- the earlier the better -- is the key to a safer school climate, she said. "Schools doing character education programs can expect a decrease in discipline referrals; that's the purpose of prevention," she said.

The conference's keynote speaker was Kevin Jennings, founder and executive director of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. It recently released research findings that suggest schools that have an active gay-straight alliance student organization are safer schools. Among the study's findings were that students in schools that have such gay-straight groups are less likely to be called derogatory names for lesbians and gays. "There are a lot of misperceptions about what a gay-straight alliance is and what it does. . . . They work to provide a safe environment for students and work to educate students in tolerance," said Daryl Presgraves, media relations manager for the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. "We understand that there are many different value systems. We respect that, but how can we come together? No one thinks a gay student should be called a faggot while they walk down the hallway."

Presgraves said that Oklahoma has 20 GSAs registered with the network, including ones in Tulsa and Jenks public schools.

Melissa Pontius started an alliance at Jenks High School this year. "It's something that's really important to me personally," she said. "There's a whole group of kids that either are gay or support gays and want to talk about it, but they don't have anywhere to go, and they don't know each other because Jenks is so big."

Pontius said using derogatory terms for gays is common among teens. "Calling someone a fag is now calling someone stupid; they have become synonymous," she said.

Tate said he believes the general climate of a school needs to encourage students to get help if they are being victimized. "I think the key thing is whether students feel protected and that they're not going to be worse off if they complain," he said.

Tara Thompson, spokeswoman for Jenks Public Schools, said the district wants to know if a student is being harassed for any reason. "We certainly want students to feel comfortable in coming forward. Students are there to get an education, they're not there to be ridiculed," she said.
 

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