Special editorial: Bullying, gay teen suicides, and a need for a solution

By Nestor Lopez-Duran PhD

A call for support of anti-bullying efforts and the The Safe Schools Improvement Act.

Last Sunday a 30 year old gay man was lured into a house in the Bronx where he thought he would be attending a party. Instead, he was tortured and sodomized by a group of teenagers and young adults. He was the third person tortured by the group for being gay that same weekend. The other two victims were just 17. Also last week, Tyler Clementi, a teenager and accomplished violinist who was just starting his freshman year at Rutgers University committed suicide after he was outed by his roommate who secretly video taped him having an encounter with another boy and streamed the video on the internet to other students. Earlier last month Billy Lucas hanged himself after being bullied because his classmates thought he was gay. Likewise, thirteen-year- old Asher Brown shot himself in the head and died after experiencing severe bullying by classmates in 2 different schools. Asher had recently told his parents that he was gay. Within days Seth Walsh, another 13 year old gay teen who had been bullied at his school killed himself. And the cases seem never ending. Eric Mohah, just 17, shot himself to death after being bullied relentlessly and called homo and gay and fag. He was 1 of 4 teens who had been bullied to death at the same Ohio school. The others included 16 year old Sladjana Vidovic, 16 year old Jennifer Eyring, and 16 year old Meredith Rezak, who was tormented by her peers after coming out as gay. In light of these tragedies, how could anyone oppose efforts to keep these kids from being bullied?

So, last Friday I stepped in unfamiliar territory when I posted on child-psych.org twitter account (@childpsychology) a call to our followers to tell the organization Focus on the Family to stop opposing anti-bullying programs at schools. I had been following the stories about Focus on the Family, a conservative Christian organization that has a strong anti-gay position and opposes Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) and Congresswoman Linda Sanchez (D-PA) anti-bullying legislation, as well as stories about other Christian organizations that also oppose efforts to specifically protect gay teens from being bullied. But, from the messages that arrived soon after my twitter post, I learned that some of my followers actually agreed with the position of these conservative organizations and were upset at my post. I spent time trying to understand their logic, reading the official position of these organizations, and reading the comments on many websites where people adamantly oppose such anti-bullying efforts. And as I sat thinking how to respond, I realized that it was nearly impossible to argue with those whose views are driven by fundamentalist religious convictions. Beliefs such as that gays are impure, that they are worse than terrorists, or that those trying to stop bullying at our schools have a secret homosexual agenda and want to turn our kindergarten kids into the homosexual lifestyle, reflect a degree of hate and irrational paranoia that precludes the possibility for productive discussion. However, there was another line of arguments I found more sensible; at least as so far as it opened the door for a real scientific debate. Some indicated that the reason they opposed efforts to prevent bullying at schools is because they believe (incorrectly) that bullying prevention programs dont work.

Putting aside the fact that these programs dont work is not the argument used by Focus on the Family to oppose bullying prevention efforts, I want to tackle the assertion that anti-bullying programs dont work. Efforts to stop bullying in schools are not new. Schools have tried to stop bullying for decades to various degrees of success. Likewise, researchers have been examining the effectiveness of these programs for years, which has greatly informed our understanding of what type of program work and what doesnt work. For example, in 2007, Dr. Chael Vreeman and Dr. Aaron Carroll published an extensive examination of the effectiveness of bullying prevention programs around the world. The authors examined 3 main types of programs: 1) Curriculum interventions, 2) Whole School Interventions, and 3) Social Skills Training programs. Curriculum interventions are interventions that focus on modifications of the curriculum, which may include videos, classroom discussions, classroom presentations, etc. Whole School Interventions refer to programs that go beyond changes in curriculum to include school-wide efforts, such as teacher training, conflict resolution training, changes in school policies and sanctions, and individual counseling.  Social Skill Training programs are mostly focused on providing social and behavioral group interventions to kids involved in bullying. The authors examined 10 studies of curriculum based interventions, 10 studies of whole-school interventions, and 4 studies of social skills training programs.

So, do these programs work? It depends. The authors found that curriculum-based interventions did not usually work and in some cases made the problem worse. For example, one study found that bullying increased among young children exposed to the intervention. Likewise, another study showed that children previously identified as aggressive became even more aggressive when exposed to the curriculum-based intervention. In contrast, whole-school interventions were found to be very effective in reducing bullying, victimization, and anti-social behavior. Of the 10 programs examined, 8 showed significant benefits. However, two studies of the same program (the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program) provide some striking cues about how programs should be implemented. One study found this program to be extremely effective leading to decreased bullying, decreased victimization, decreased antisocial behavior, and improved school climate after the intervention. Yet, another study of the same program, as implemented at different schools, found that the program made the problem worse! That is, bullying among males actually increased! Why the difference? The two implementations of same program varied significantly in the degree to which the school staff members were involved, and how much the schools had contact with the researchers (who provided oversight). The schools where the program didnt work had less involvement by the school staff and had limited contact with the researchers. It appears that external oversight of the implementation of the program and more involvement by school staff is critical and necessary to make these programs work. Finally, of the 4 social skills training programs examined, only 1 showed significant benefits and this was implemented with younger (3rd grade) students. There were no benefits when the social skills training program was provided to older students.

In sum, the research to date suggests that curriculum based interventions dont appear to work. Bullying is a systemic problem and trying to solve it with simple modifications of the curriculum without addressing the entire school culture and other systemic issues is likely not effective. However, whole-school interventions can be very effective. These interventions are the model that schools should follow when implementing future anti-bullying campaigns. These results also tells us that we should reject the assertion that anti-bullying efforts dont work as an excuse for opposing the implementations of programs to curve this grave problem. Anti-Bullying programs are necessary, can be effective, and need your support. Please contact your senators and ask them to support The Safe Schools Improvement Act.

And finally on a personal note, I wish we could stop the bullying of gay teens by simply asking parents to teach their children respect for their peers, but sadly too many parents hold beliefs that implicitly condone the harassment of gay teens. When we support politicians, religious leaders, and organizations that denigrate gay individuals, we become part of the problem. When you say that gay individuals are immoral and impure like Mormon leader Boyd K. Packer did, or that gays should be barred from teaching positions, like South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint stated, or that AIDS is Gods punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals like Jerry Falwell asserted, or that gays are the biggest threat that our nation has even more so than terrorism, like Oklahoma State Rep Sally Ker indicated, or when you have the Boy Scouts of America stating that gay individuals are immoral and not clean in thought, word, and deed, you are dehumanizing and denigrating gay teens and providing bullies with the moral justification for their actions.  I believe that the vicious anti-gay rhetoric that fills our airwaves, our churches, mosques, and synagogues, our political speeches, and our dinner tables, is partially responsible for the death of these children.  Words matter. Hate speech matters. We need The Safe Schools Improvement Act precisely because the Focus on the Family and other homophobic organizations are opposed to it. We need a law that facilitates the implementation of effective anti-bullying efforts that explicitly protect gay teens because we live in a society in which hatred and discrimination against gay teens and adults is not only accepted by many, but preached by our politicians, religious leaders and civic organizations.

Additional Resources:
The Trevor Project: Devoted to suicide prevention and gay youth acceptance.
The It Gets Better Project: Provides stories of hope to gay teens contemplating suicide.

The reference:
Vreeman, R., & Carroll, A. (2007). A Systematic Review of School-Based Interventions to Prevent Bullying Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, 161 (1), 78-88 DOI: 10.1001/archpedi.161.1.78