Homophobia Starts in Elementary School; Teachers Do Little

PHOTO: Clare Davidson-Sherman, 8, is the adopted daughter of Karen Davidson-Fisher and her wife, Bobbi Davidson-Fisher.
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Clare Davidson-Sherman, the adopted daughter of Karen Davidson-Fisher, has "several mommies" -- her biological one, her adoptive mother's former partner who has joint custody, and now Davidson-Fisher's legal wife.

The 8-year-old has come face-to-face with bullying in her Omaha, Neb., public school. One of her third-grade classmates used a derogatory and "sing-songy" tone as she taunted, "Clare has lesbian moms!"

"She was upset," said Davidson-Fisher, a 39-year-old former mental health therapist. "But the teacher talked to the kid. There are at least three kids in my daughter's class who have same-sex parents. It's something that needs to be taken care of."

Since then, bullying hasn't been an issue for Clare.

Now, the first survey of its kind, "Playgrounds and Prejudice: Elementary School Climate in the United States," reveals that homophobia is pervasive in elementary schools and, unlike Clare's school, most teachers do little to intervene.

At this age, bullies use words to attack those who are different, but if not curtailed early, warn advocates, verbal teasing turns to violence at the middle school and high school level.

The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) examined homophobia and gender nonconformity among 1,065 students in grades 3 to 6 and 1,099 teachers in grades K to 6 in a survey conducted by Harris Interactive.

Students and teachers were asked about their school climates, including hearing biased remarks, witnessing and experiencing bullying, as well as lessons they received on bullying, gender issues and family diversity.

An estimated 45 percent of students and 49 percent of teachers said that the word "gay" was most often used in a negative way, for example, "That's so gay."

Many also report regularly hearing students make homophobic remarks, such as "fag" or "lesbo," and negative comments about race and ethnicity. Three quarters of the students report that children are called names, made fun of or bullied with at least some regularity.

Victims were most often targeted because of their body size, not being good at sports, how well they did their schoolwork, not conforming to gender roles or because others thought they were gay.

But only 24 percent of teachers report having personally engaged in efforts to create a safe and supportive environment for families with LGBT parents, even though nearly half of them regularly heard students making homophobic remarks.

Nearly 1 in 10 of these elementary students revealed they do not always conform to traditional gender norms, according to the survey: "Either they are boys who others sometimes think, act or look like a girl, or they are girls who others sometimes think, act or look like a boy."

Those students also say that they are less likely to feel safe at school.

"Words like 'sissy,' 'fairy,' 'faggot' and 'dike' are weapons of choice for children who want to hurt their peers," said GLSEN's executive director Eliza Byard. "Learning words can wound someone and turn into patterns of bullying.… It can be painful and limiting for children who are outside some artificial norm."

Studies in grades K through 12 reveal that when children reach middle school, 40 percent of all LGBT students report having been physically assaulted because of gender expression or identity.

"As a society, we have been witnessing for the past couple of years the dramatic evidence of what can happen when bias and bullying are allowed to mature and develop through the school years," said Byard.

LGBT Students at Higher Risk of Suicide

The National Youth Violence Prevention Resource Center estimated that nearly 30 percent of American youth are either a bully or a target of bullying.

In addition, researchers at the Yale School of Medicine, in a review of studies from 13 countries, found signs of an apparent connection between bullying, being bullied and suicide.

GLSEN's own research indicates that LGBT youth may be more likely to think about and attempt suicide than heterosexual teens.

Just last September, 14-year-old Jamey Rodemeyer killed himself after a year of tormenting by bullies at his Buffalo, N.Y., school. Students posted comments online such as, "JAMIE IS STUPID, GAY, FAT ANND [sic] UGLY. HE MUST DIE!"

And in 2009, Carl Joseph Hoover-Walker was found dead, hanging from an extension cord in his Springfield, Mass., home after school bullies repeatedly called him "gay." The 11-year-old Boy Scout was ruthlessly teased, despite his mother's pleas to his charter school to address the problem.

"This problem is not going away," said his mother, Sirdeaner L. Walker, 46, who was instrumental in enacting anti-bullying legislation in Massachusetts. "And even if they survive elementary and high school, the scars are long-lasting."

Walker said her son's teachers failed to act, but now state law requires schools to have a plan of action that involves parents of both victim and bully, as well as teachers.

"Your child may be afraid to come forward and name bullies because they are afraid [the bullies] will not be punished and dealt with and [the child] will be attacked," she said. "When you don't handle the problem, it gets worse."

To help teachers intervene, GLSEN has published a new resource, "Ready, Set, Respect," in partnership with the National Association of Elementary School Principals and the National Association for the Education of Young People.

The kit helps teachers address biased language, LGBT families and gender nonconformity, issues that until now, many teachers have seen as controversial and "too frightening to take on, particularly in the younger grades," according to Byard.

"Issues emerge in the earliest years and need to be addressed forthrightly," she said.

According to the survey, 85 percent of teachers said they had received professional development on diversity or multicultural issues, but fewer than half had ever had specific training on gender issues.

But many teachers do not intervene because they are afraid of "push back" from parents and others in the community, according to Peter DeWitt, a New York elementary school principal and author of "Dignity for All: Safeguarding LGBT Students."

"More and more kids, especially in our public schools, are coming from diverse families and some have had no exposure to LGBT people," he said. "In my school there was a hate blog for awhile."

"Nobody's pushing an agenda on kids," he said. "It's about accepting and creating an inclusive climate where all kids are accepted. It's not just about gay kids. When they go to the work force, they will be exposed to all types of people. It's a skill you need to know."

For Clare Davidson-Sherman, teacher intervention helped. In fact, she now goes to slumber parties with her former bully.

"It's important for kids to see that they need to take care of each other and help each other out, rather than take each other down," said her mother.

"I don't worry too much," said Davidson-Fisher about what the future will bring. "I think Clare will continue to bring stuff home and when she sees it's taken care of, she doesn't need to be afraid. She can tell us, and it will get handled."

"We weren't sure how the teacher would handle it and we were also trying to talk to her about things she could say to protect herself a bit," she said, then laughed. "When someone says, 'Your mom is a lesbian,' you can say, 'And?'"

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