CLEARWATER — Bullying of gay and lesbian students occurs throughout Pinellas County schools, but is especially bad at the middle school level, said participants in a Saturday panel discussion on gay bullying. And some school employees, parents and churches are only making the situation worse, they said.
One upset audience member, who identified himself only as a Pinellas school bus driver, spoke emotionally about vicious bullying he witnessed while transporting middle school students on his bus. And when he complained to the school district about the antigay remarks and gestures, he said he wasn't supported by his supervisor.
That story and others were painfully familiar to some of the 40 or so people who attended the discussion at St. Paul's Lutheran Church. It was sponsored by the regional chapter of Lutherans Concerned, a nonprofit that promotes justice for all, including lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender individuals.
"The impetus behind this panel was the death of seven teens by suicide in the last six to eight months throughout the country," said Steve Miller, president of the regional chapter. "One young man took his life after his sexual orientation was exposed online."
The discussion was led by three professionals who have worked with young victims of gay bullying: Shelbi Day, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union Tampa branch; Steve Kornell, a St. Petersburg City Council member and Pinellas schools social worker; and the Rev. Buz Van Horne, pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in St. Petersburg.
There are laws and policies in place designed to prevent bullying of students, panelists said.
"There is an antibullying law for schools," Day said. "It defines bullying as the use of threatening, humiliating or intimidating behavior of various types."
Students also are protected by law against bullying by teachers, she said.
"It is never okay for a teacher to make antigay jokes or mock a student's behavior," she said.
Each school also is required by law to enact its own policy against bullying and harassing.
That law doesn't always work, though, said Kornell, a social worker for Jamerson Elementary and Boca Ciega High schools.
"Putting policy in place is only 50 percent," he said. "The other 50 percent is making sure teachers and staff are enforcing policy, and that isn't always happening."
Day said parents may be a big part of the problem.
"Many kids can't go home and talk to their parents," she said. "One parent I dealt with promised me he would beat the gayness out of his child."
Van Horne questioned the wisdom of some churches that are openly antigay and encourage others to punish gay youth or try to change them. "Reparation therapy" is a technique some use to try to convince young men and women they can be "cured of their gayness." That approach can be devastating for a young teen, Van Horne said.
However, there are some hopeful developments, according to the panelists.
Kornell, the first openly gay person elected to office in St. Petersburg, said the creation of gay-straight alliances in most local high schools has helped strengthen the self-esteem of gay youths and diminish bullying. The alliances, which are initiated by students, provide a safe and supportive environment for LGBT youth. One problem is that it can be difficult to find faculty sponsors for the groups.
"Teachers, either gay or straight, sometimes don't feel comfortable with this group," Day said.
But Kornell said teachers and principals in Pinellas County are more often supportive than not.
Van Horne mentioned a new program that is proving effective: the It Gets Better project, which can be seen in a YouTube video. Created in 2010 by syndicated author Dan Savage and his partner, It Gets Better aims to inspire hope in gay youths to get past bullying.
In March, the book version of the project was released. The title tells a hopeful story for gay and lesbian youth: It Gets Better: Coming Out, Overcoming Bullying and Creating a Life Worth Living.