April 17, 2009 -- From the time Preston Whitt, now 18, entered kindergarten, he knew he was different. He also quickly learned that the teachers didn't know what to do about it.
"In my elementary school during PE, there was a favorite dodge ball game of all the students called 'smear the queer,'" said Whitt, of Decatur, Ala. "I still, at that time, did not realize, Oh 'I'm gay,' but the whole premise of the game bothered me. I remember saying to the coach, 'Can we play a different game -- I don't like that game."
Instead of changing the game, Whitt said the teacher decided he should be "the queer" for the day. "The whole premise of the game is that all the students run around and throw balls at the student designated as the queer … very similar to the old idea of stoning," joked Whitt.
The tone-deaf mentality of his teachers didn't stop there. Whitt can remember asking a teacher to stop kids making fun of the way he talked, but she just said he needed to talk differently. In late elementary school, he used to fear going to the bathroom because a bully might be in there.
Finally, Whitt stopped asking for help. But he said he will join in the annual National Day of Silence to draw attention to anti-gay bullying.
Clearly, children's words -- and the inaction of adults -- can hurt. Just last week an 11-year-old boy in Springfield, Mass., committed suicide, reportedly because he was distressed that his classmates repeatedly called him "gay."
But school psychologists are increasingly interested in what teachers and parents say -- especially since they are often the first to notice developing tensions over a child's gender and sexual identity.
Lisa Rivero of Brevard County, Fla., spotted problems with her child by the third grade.
"He had always been bullied. Even from elementary school the kids have been calling him 'faggot' and 'gay' because he didn't fit the gender norm of what a normal boy should be doing," Rivero said of her now 17-year-old son, Josh.
Although no one ever asked her outright, Rivero said she got hints that teachers and school administrators were questioning her son's sexual orientation.
"I had one teacher tell me during a parent teacher conference, 'Well, I have some concerns about him that during recess he prefers to be with the girls and not with the boys,'" said Rivero. "I said, was he struggling academically because of it? If no, well then that's his decision."
Some families are completely shocked when their children come out the closet. But Rivero said she was among many other parents who guessed their child's sexual orientation long before the child even knew what it meant.
"It didn't come to as a surprise to us. ... We were just waiting for him to come to the realization," Rivero said. Rivero said Josh came out the summer before starting high school.
"I've talked to so many other parents who say the same thing, especially moms," Rivero said. "There are so many moms, we can't describe it. We just know."
But what many parents don't know is what to do to help their children cope with emotional distress.
Gay Students Asking for More Protection in Schools
"We're never going to make school children not pick on other school children," said Whitt. But he does think a written school policy about bullying gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender schoolchildren would make a difference.
"Just putting a sign on the wall including sexual orientation and gender identity makes that difference," he said.
Whitt said he could remember reading the behavioral policy signs about respect on the walls of his elementary school.
"Once I realized what gay actually meant, if I had seen on there 'gay students' I would have reported it much more," he said. "If it's ,'Oh, guess what? You get to be the queer and everyone gets to throw the ball at you,' that student is much less likely to report it ever again."
Researchers say it's essential to start addressing anti-gay actions early. Caitlyn Ryan, a clinical researcher at San Francisco State University has done extensive research about family attitudes in childhood and the mental, emotional and physical health of young adults who identify as homosexuals.
Ryan said parents like Rivero may be picking up on real signals, and that the first awareness of sexual preferences -- either heterosexual or homosexual -- often develops before puberty.
"The research shows all young people at an average age of 10 begin to have their first crush," said Ryan. "It might be a celebrity they put up on the wall, or they give someone a valentine."
In generations past, Ryan said people came out of the closet at much older ages. However, with increasing awareness of homosexuality on TV, in high schools, on the Internet and in the news, Ryan said children today are more likely to put two and two together much earlier.
"Many people knew that they were gay at early ages, typically boys -- they knew when they were 5, or 8 or 10," she said.
This early awareness, in combination with immature children, can lead to serious problems in schools without proper intervention.
Last February, an openly gay middle school student named Lawrence King, 15, of Oxnard, Calif., was allegedly shot and killed in a classroom by a fellow student, Brandon McInerney.
King's family is suing the school and a gay rights organization for failing to protect its son from McInerney, who was charged as an adult and has pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder and a hate crime, according to The Associated Press.
School and family psychologists have been studying this issue more in recent years, and are just now developing tested recommendations that might help at-risk children while streering clear of debates about religious or moral beliefs.
When the Word 'Gay' Comes up in Third Grade
"Teachers, even with the best of intentions, don't know what to do. They don't want to talk about religious beliefs or sex," said Suzanne Greenfield, the senior "Safe Schools" coordinator for Parents Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, Greenfield explained.
Rivero said she went through a trying time with well-meaning teachers to deal with children who taunted her son.
Rivero remembers her son first asking what 'gay' mean in the third grade after a bullying incident. To the best of her ability, she sat down Josh and his younger sister and tried to explain what it meant in children's terms.
"I spoke with principals over the years and got the typical responses: 'Oh well, he needs to toughen up' or 'Oh, it's usually his fault,'" Rivero said.
By high school the family was dealing with threats of physical violence on MySpace. Rivero said the school administration told her the only way she could ensure her son didn't have a class with the boy who was threatening him was to get a restraining order.
"It wasn't until that kid got off the bus and was handed a restraining order that his parents were ever notified that this was going on," said Rivero.
School psychologists across the country say it's an unfortunate but not an unheard of tactic to stop bullying.
"In my middle school kids are arrested [for bullying] all the time, although I don't necessarily agree with it," said Lisa Persinger, a psychologist at the Tucson Unified School District in Arizona and chairwoman of the Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender and Questioning Issues Committee of the National Association of School Psychologists.
Persinger said schools need not discuss sensitive issues like homosexuality to combat bad behavior and slurs. Instead, a better tactic is to pre-emptively discuss what behaviors and words are allowed.
"The schools that do better with this are schools that have schoolwide positive behavior support rather than schools that use only discipline measures when students misbehave," said Persinger.
Greenfield's work across the country supports similar stances; pre-emptively talk about acceptable words and behavior but avoid going too far into the personal lives of children.
"It's about behavior and what's acceptable behavior and what isn't," said Greenfield. "You aren't talking about gender and sexuality unless you're talking about it in a health class."
"This is not actually that difficult of a conversation to have," she said.
Drug Use, Suicide and Pain in Gay and Lesbian Adults
While Greenfield insists that discussing homosexuality in the classroom is easy, Ryan said the opposite is often true when families are faced with the issue.
Ryan and her research team at the Family Acceptance Project have interviewed more than 200 openly gay young adults and their families, from various ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds in California. She found lesbian, gay and bisexual young adults who reported higher levels of family rejection were 8.4 times more likely to attempt suicide, 5.9 times more likely to report high levels of depression, 3.4 times more likely to use illegal drugs and 3.4 times more likely to engage in unprotected sex compared with peers from families that reported no or low levels of family rejection.
Preventing Tragedies at Home
"We've had families where the way that they found out was that the child tried to commit suicide," said Ryan. "What they learned was that the child was so afraid that the positive relationship they had with their parents would be lost that they were so afraid that they would take their own lives."
In a few months, Ryan said her organization will be ready to present studies showing specific behaviors among parents that contribute to better physical and mental health, and those that may unintentionally cause harm.
Ryan said the recommendations from her research could help families regardless of their religious view points or ideas about homosexuality.
"Even parents who are rejecting still spoke with concern about what would happen to their child," said Ryan about the findings in her study. "A very important message for parents and caregivers from our research is to provide a support."
"One of the things that parents can do early on is when a subject comes up in the news, which happens a lot nowadays, to give positive messages or neutral messages," she said.