Gay socks? Schools need ‘zero indifference policy’ | Guest column

Can socks be gay? According to several middle schoolers, socks can indeed be gay — and enough impetus for bullying the student wearing them.

There I stood, a shocked parent well aware of the recent upsurge of teen suicides, and it was happening before my eyes. Bullying for the perception of something — one's socks — being “gay.” This was not the first time I was shaken to hear such slurs bantered about by teens at the many school athletic events I attend regularly for my children. The difference this time was that Saghalie Middle School administrators stepped in before I had to.

Regardless of personal, political or religious views, a child being targeted for humiliation, verbal and physical abuse is wrong. We as the parents of Federal Way must have intentional, empowering conversations with our youth about respect, empathy, compassion. We must be asking our schools to enact a Zero Indifference Policy — one that emboldens administrators, teachers, bus and recess monitors to actively intervene so that all students are safe, welcomed, dignified and respected at schools.

Parents of Federal Way, this is not a gay kids’ problem. This is not a gay community’s problem. This is our problem. No child is safe when LGBT kids are being bullied. A child who feels empowered to target the perceived gay student is equally targeting the overweight, the differently-abled, the ELL student struggling to learn a new language, the smart kid, the religious minority — anyone who is different is a bully’s target.

Indifference can often be the greater source of hopelessness. Bloopers, "America’s Funniest Home Videos," "Punk'd," "Jackass" and "Fail Blog" — all examples of humor at someone else’s expense — have instilled indifference into our children’s emotional repertoire. In video games, lives begin anew with the stroke of a reset button. Taunts, laughter, teasing, mockery, invasion of privacy made possible by technology we as adults can barely keep up with — these all lead to a climate of hopelessness in a time of progress that should be filled with hope.

Recent media attention on gay issues ("Don’t Ask Don’t Tell," marriage equality, hate crimes) highlight the bigotry and verbal intolerance experienced by youth and adults alike. Although initial responses to the alarming suicides of gay youth is sympathy and messages of hope on blogs and comment areas, the remarks often degenerate into hate-filled slurs calling for more deaths — further assailing these vulnerable youth with intolerance and the perception that things will not get better.

No child is disposable. When one student is targeted, all within earshot are affected. Parents, talk to your children and those who hang out at your house with your children. It takes a village. Federal Way School District, pass a Zero Indifference Policy. Principals, empower your staff to intercede every time without exception.

As concerned parents of Federal Way, we should be asking what specifically is our school district doing today to ensure that teachers, counselors, bus and playground monitors and administrators are intervening effectively? A policy on paper without the directive, trainings and materials are simply ineffective words on a paper. The Legislature finds that despite a recognized law prohibiting harassment, intimidation and bullying of students in public schools and despite widespread adoption of anti-harassment policies by school districts, harassment of students continues and has not declined since the law was enacted. We need a “Zero Indifference Policy” that mandates that public school employees rise above their own person biases to serve all students in their care.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan released the following statement last week: "This is a moment where every one of us — parents, teachers, students, elected officials, and all people of conscience — needs to stand up and speak out against intolerance in all its forms. Whether it’s students harassing other students because of ethnicity, disability or religion; or an adult, public official harassing the president of the University of Michigan student body because he is gay, it is time we as a country said enough. No more. This must stop."

How many more teens will see suicide as their only option before RCW 28A.300.285 takes effect in August 2011? Why wait?

If “gay socks” is all it takes, what are we doing as the parents of Federal Way to ensure all children feel safe at school? We hear about the high-profile cases after the fact. What are we doing for the children suffering in silence now?

Take a stand, have a conversation, offer your support to your schools, insist on training for our schools, expect elected officials to represent every citizen. Talk to your teen. The life you save by doing so maybe your own child.

Donna Candiliere and Rachel Smith-Mosel are Federal Way residents. Send comments to editor@federalwaymirror.com

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