In the last month, the national media has reported on the suicides of five young people — Raymond Chase (19 years old); Tyler Clementi (19); Seth Walsh (13); Asher Brown (13); and Billy Lucas (15) — who faced relentless and cruel bullying and harassment because they were gay or perceived to be gay.
These are the stories that we know about because they made news, but we know that there are others as well. It is a sad reality that schools are not a safe place for all young people. Youth that face this type of bullying too often do poorly in school, develop substance abuse problems, drop out and sometimes they hurt or kill themselves.
Over the last few months, the Helena community has been involved in a public discussion about the Helena School District’s health enhancement curriculum. We have witnessed spirited debate on a variety of topics. We have also experienced nasty, hurtful and dehumanizing statements about people who are lesbian, gay, bi or transgender. These public statements have come from adults in our community with children of their own.
One of the topics that the proposed health enhancement curriculum aims to teach is dignity and respect for differences in our community. It would prominently feature the district’s anti-bullying policy. In addition, it would address the reality that we have a diverse community. It acknowledges that individuals and families in our community can look different from one another, practice different faiths, come from different ethnic or racial backgrounds, have different sexual orientations, have one parent or have multiple generations living together. The proposed curriculum reinforces that just because families come in different forms, it doesn’t mean that one family is less than another family. Teaching respect, fairness and dignity in our schools is an important step toward reducing bullying and harassment and building understanding.
The health enhancement curriculum won’t solve all of our problems, but these types of programs are an important step toward keeping the youth in our community safe and strengthening the way we relate to each other. Thousands of communities in 21 states have implemented a curriculum that is similar and have seen great results. Helena should do the same.
Kim Abbott is program director for the Montana Human Rights Network.