(NOTE: This article was first published on Crosswalk, April 15, 2009. The events described happened a year ago.)
It is difficult to pinpoint all the reasons why a child might commit suicide but the parents of two young men are pretty clear on at least one factor - bullying.
Carl Hoover-Walker was buried this week in Springfield, MA. Hoover-Walker was taunted with gay overtones, even though he did not identify as such. His mother said she alerted the school about the ongoing harassment and name-calling but with no discernable difference. The 11 year-old hung himself April 6th.
Just days before in Mentor, Ohio, the parents of Eric Mohat filed a lawsuit against the Mentor High School for failing to address clear signs of harassment. They believe the bullying led Eric to take his life at age 17. ABC News reported the details.
The lawsuit — filed March 27, alleges that the quiet but likable boy, who was involved in theater and music, was called "gay," "fag," "queer" and "homo" and often in front of his teachers. Most of the harassment took place in math class and the teacher — an athletic coach — was accused of failing to protect the boy.
"When you lose a child like this it destroys you in ways you can't even describe," Eric Mohat's father told ABCNews.com.
The parents aren't seeking any compensation; rather, they are asking that Mentor High School recognize their son's death as a "bullicide" and put in place what they believe is a badly needed anti-bullying program.
I believe Mr. Mohat is correct. School can be a cruel place and even though some schools do a good job at intervention, others do not. And schools cannot control what students do when they are off the school grounds. Parents and youth leaders must help set the tone for how people should treat each other. So we need schools to improve what they are doing to intervene in these situations and we need adults to model a better way to interact.
Some think schools are doing enough. In describing her reasons for supporting a boycott on the Day of Silence this coming Friday, Laurie Higgins of the Illinois Family Institute told WorldNetDaily
…that the goal cited by the GLSEN events is to reduce bullying on school campuses, especially that bullying perceived as targeting homosexual students or those with other alternative sexual lifestyle choices.
"No one supports bullying," she said. "Every school has more than ample anti-bullying policies in place. … for GLSEN, the means by which they want to end bullying is to normalize volitional homosexual conduct."
I doubt the parents of Eric and Carl would agree that school policies were ample enough. And Higgins misunderstands the intent of the students involved in the anti-bullying activities. Where anti-bullying policies and programs exist, they want the policies enforced and implemented. I suspect parents and kids who are the targets of harassment want more action and less talk and good intention. If Christians care, then they have to demonstrate that in some tangible way. What does it show when you leave the scene?
To those who think anti-gay bullying is no big deal, read the words of Brian Pengelly, a youth minister from Canada.
The truth is that when I was a student questioning my own sexual identity in grade 9 I was beat up because of my orientation.
The truth is that I was lucky, because compared to many of my gay friends, I got off easy.
The truth is that I have talked to hundreds of youth across North America who have been called names like "fag", "homo", "sissy", "dyke" and "lesbo" every single day.
The truth is that often teachers and administrators see this happen and do nothing about it.
The truth is that many students (like me) will never report the harassment and violence they face because they are scared and ashamed. So even if and when school administration will listen, they often don't hear about the extent of it.
The truth is that it can often be Christians who perpetrate the bullying and name-calling.
I went to a Christian school. It happened there.
This is not just my experience. This is SO common. I have seen it in schools. I have seen it in churches, I have seen it in youth groups. I have talked to HUNDREDS of young people who have told me their stories.
This is REAL.
And when Christians pretend like it isn't, we bring shame on the name of the Lord who we claim to follow.
When we stand by and let others speak out for justice while we do nothing, we fail the Kingdom of God.
When we actively oppose, or distract from those seeking justice we prove to a watching culture that our claims to love gay people are a lie.
This is REAL. This must STOP. We are part of the problem. Change starts with us.
Brenda High, author of Bullycide and editor of the website Bully Police, has empathy for the Mohats and Hoover-Walkers. She lost her son in a similar manner several years ago. I asked Brenda for her advice to Christians who want to make a difference on behalf of kids who experience harassment and bullying. She said,
My only advice to those who call themselves Christian is to remember that to be a Christian is to follow Christ, who said, "Judge not, lest ye be judged". It's an oxymoron to call oneself a Christian, and at the same time to profess hate towards someone because of an act, sin, or behavior that you don't like or disagree with.
If children are being bullied on the playground or inside our school, we as adults have failed that child, and we have failed the bully too. We must teach our children Christian values and ask our schools to teach "Do Unto Others" values so that all of our children can have a safe and bully-free environment to learn.
I couldn't agree more. I initiated the Golden Rule Pledge because I think Christians can do much more to change the rhetoric surrounding issues of social conflict, like homosexuality, and set a better tone.
More specifically, parents worried about bullying at school can take several positive steps to make a difference. If you are concerned your child might be engaged in bullying others, you should treat the matter as seriously as if the child was caught drinking or skipping school. Hazing is frequently illegal and constitutes assault. Do not be afraid to intervene at home and at school with the help of school counselors. Sometimes adults overlook the frequent name-calling that is so hurtful to targeted kids. Encourage church youth group leaders to build anti-bullying activities and studies into their work.
If you are concerned that your child is being bullied, be the squeaky wheel at school and with the school guidance office. Report every incident and insist on seeing the school's anti-bullying program and policies. School counselors can often help diagnose social conflicts and put pressure on the administration to address the situation. In some cases, class and schedule changes can be made. Changing schools may be needed at times. Enlist your church youth leaders to come along side your child for encouragement and support. Help build a youth ministry that can be oasis for kids in an often hostile social environment. Be prepared for your child to resist your efforts because the child fears making it worse. You may need to consult an attorney skilled in working with schools. These are only general possible strategies to consider, for more specific ideas and information, including tips for kids being bullied, you can consult Bullypolice.com and the caring folks there.