Teach Respect?

Well, soon schools will be taking another well deserved break from academics and plunge headlong into political advocacy. Yes, Virginia there is a Day of Silence and it is coming to a school near you.

The DOS is an advocacy day sponsored by the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network. According to GLSEN’s website, the DOS will occur on April 13 and involve 4,000 schools and 450,000 students and teachers. During the school day, those participating will refuse to speak, even during class. Students hand out cards calling attention to what GLSEN calls “the bias and harassment experienced by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students and their allies.”

This year, beginning of the same day as the DOS, GLSEN is launching a new campaign called Teach Respect. According to GLSEN’s news release, “The Teach Respect campaign seeks to educate, inform and inspire Americans to address the serious problems of anti-LGBT name-calling, bullying and harassment that affects ALL students – gay and straight alike – in our nation’s schools.”

I agree with putting an end to name-calling, bullying and harassment. On the DOS, I will be in a public high school speaking against bullying. My favorite moral philosopher taught that we should treat others the way we want to be treated. So I have no problem with ending the harassment of anyone.

However, if GLSEN wants to teach respect, members of the organization should show respect. In a 2000 speech, GLSEN’s Executive Director, Kevin Jennings had this to say about those he considers to be his adversaries:

“We have to quit being afraid of the religious right. We also have to quit — … I’m trying to find a way to say this. I’m trying not to say, ‘[F—] ’em! which is what I want to say, because I don’t care what they think! Drop dead!” (Marble Collegiate Church, New York City, March 20, 2000).

Maybe Mr. Jennings had a bad day but to my knowledge he has not apologized for these remarks (GLSEN refused to respond to my inquiries concerning the speech). This is not an isolated event. During the 2004 National Education Association convention, I witnessed similar displays from GLSEN members and their allies. I do not see how this rhetoric teaches respect.

If GLSEN and allies want to end name calling in schools, then they should first stop name calling. However, I do not think the DOS and the coming Teach Respect campaign is primarily about harassment. If so, there are a number of more effective means to achieve that end. These events are about persuasion. They are efforts to change attitudes and beliefs concerning homosexuality cloaked in rhetoric concerning safety. To wit, GLSEN’s guidebook regarding activism on the DOS reads:

“But the Day of Silence Project is about more than being silent for a day. It’s about raising awareness around LGBT issues, making a visible personal commitment to justice and equality, and, potentially, organizing a larger campaign to promote safety and respect in your school and community. The Day of Silence enables participants to show, in a highly visible way, everyone they encounter, that they support LGBT rights.”

This is political activism, pure and simple. Agree with gay rights or not, let’s understand this clearly: the purpose of the DOS is to advance a civil rights agenda in the public schools.

While many parents are not keen on the public schools being used as a tool in any political movement, I suspect some will support the DOS because they think it will prevent harassment. However, no evidence of any benefit exists. In fact, GLSEN is aware that there are no data suggesting that such activism prevents bullying. I have asked GLSEN for the evidence supporting training programs including sexual orientation and they have had the integrity to admit that there is none.

Attempting to “re-educate” students concerning homosexuality may confuse and stigmatize traditional teachers, parents and kids, but it will do little if anything to prevent bullies from finding kids who appear weak and vulnerable. Do we really think that the reason bullies attack kids with large ears or smart kids or obese kids is because bullies believe the wrong things about ear size, intelligence or obesity? I believe GLSEN’s approach is misguided and insulting to those who have traditional views of sexuality.

A significant problem with the DOS is that the effort to change the beliefs of the masses moves the focus away from where research shows it should be – on the perpetrator. Victims need assistance and support to be sure but the key to solve the problems or disrespect and harassment in schools is to intervene with bullies. I suggest that the first “teach respect” intervention should be with GLSEN.