The Teaching Life
Too Young Dead
The fatal consequences of bullying gay youth and the legal fallout
by Michael D. Simpson, NEA Office of General Counsel
I knew Aiden Rivera-Schaeff. He was a close friend of my 15-year-old daughter Kate and a frequent guest in our home.
Photo from http://aidenriveraschaeff.com/
Last April Aiden committed suicide. He hanged himself from a tree in his neighborhood. Aiden was 17.
The heart-rending memorial service was almost unbearable. Grown men wept openly, unashamed. The kids lined up around the chapel walls, waiting their turn to speak their piece and say goodbye to the boy they loved so.
Afterwards, I huddled together with other distraught dads drinking coffee. Each of us voiced the same question, “Why?” and recited the same silent prayer, “Please, God, don’t let this happen to my family.”
On the drive home, I asked Kate the question. Her answer was quite blunt, “I think he just got tired of having his head bashed against the lockers at school.”
You see, although Aiden was raised in a loving home and supported by accepting friends, he was a transgendered youth, a teenager whose differences sparked hate, fear, and ultimately physical assaults from homophobic peers.
We’ll never know whether the bullying he suffered at his suburban Washington, D.C. high school caused Aiden’s death. But this much we do know: every day in this country, GLBT students are subjected to vicious harassment and attacks, an ugly fact that has had deadly consequences.
Last year alone, at least five GLBT students killed themselves because of brutal acts of harassment at school. It’s been called bullycide.
Thirteen-year-old Seth Walsh, who was openly gay, hanged himself in the backyard of his Tehachapi, California home last September after a “relentless barrage of taunting, bullying, and other abuse at the hands of his peers,” according to the New York Times.
Another 13-year-old, Asher Brown from Houston, shot himself in the head at his home last September. Students accused him of being gay and performed mock gay sex acts on him during PE class.
Also last September, 15-year-old Billy Lucas from Greensburg, Indiana, hanged himself in the family barn. The school bullies called him “gay” and told him to “go kill himself.”
Justin Aaberg, a 15-year-old from Andover, Minnesota, hanged himself in his bedroom last July after suffering a constant stream of vicious anti-gay harassment at school.
Eighteen-year-old Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers University freshman, jumped off a campus bridge last September after his roommate outed him by secretly videotaping a sexual encounter with another man and broadcasting it over the internet.
There appears to be a real correlation between in-school bullying and suicide. According to a recent national survey, fully 84.6 percent of GLBT youth have experienced harassment at school within the last year. Also, several studies have found that 30 percent of GLBT youth have attempted suicide.
The recent epidemic of suicides by gay youth has awakened a national consciousness. Last September, columnist Dan Savage posted a YouTube video reassuring gay teens that they too can lead happy and fulfilling lives. That simple act has grown into a national phenomenon called the “It Gets Better Project” (IGBP).
More than 5,000 celebrities and political leaders have submitted videos to the site (itsgetsbetter.org) reminding GLBT youth that they are not alone and promising a better, more accepting world as they mature. The site’s gotten 15 million hits.
Contributors include President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, pop icons such as Justin Bieber and Ke$ha, and Dennis Van Roekel. Yep, the NEA President posted a video on the IGBP website.
Dennis tells GLBT teens, “If you’re being tormented by bullies, please don’t try to go it alone; don’t keep quiet. . . . Teachers and counselors and school employees are united in tackling this problem.”
Beginning teachers should know that schools have a legal obligation to stop anti-gay harassment. Last October, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) issued an official “Dear Colleague” letter to educational institutions across the country. ED explains that Title IX prohibits sexual harassment in schools that receive federal funds, and that prohibition includes “anti-gay slurs” and other forms of bullying based on the perception that a student might be gay.
Although a helpful reminder, this is not a news flash. Most lawyers already know that Title IX is a powerful legal tool to hold school districts accountable for failing to stop the harassment of GLBT youth. Since 1990, there have been a slew of verdicts and settlements requiring school districts to pay money damages to GLBT victims.
But the stakes and the dollar amounts rise sharply when the harassment results in a student’s suicide. Just as surely as day follows night, lawsuits will ensue.
Last year, the parents of Tyler Lee Long sued the Murray County (Georgia) School District for damages after the 17-year-old hanged himself. According to his mother, Tyler’s tormentors “would spit in his food, call him ‘gay,’ and say ‘I can’t wait until you are six feet under!’”
In Ohio, the parents of Eric Mohat have sued the Mentor School District, claiming that the 17-year-old shot and killed himself because of constant bullying he suffered. Students called him “homo” and kicked him in the head.
Note to NEA members: school employees are not immune from these lawsuits. In two different cases from Kentucky, NEA members were sued for failing to do enough to stop peer harassment and bullying at school, one of which resulted in the suicide of a 14-year old. In each case, NEA’s liability insurance carrier paid damages and expenses totaling six figures.
But fear of being sued should not be the reason for school employees to do their part to stop this national nightmare. It is a moral imperative. Trust me on this: You don’t ever want to attend the funeral of one of your students who committed suicide, or—for that matter—your daughter’s best friend.
NEA's Bully Free: It Starts With Me
Have you taken the NEA Bully Free pledge? Visit NEA's Bully Free: It Starts with Me website to take the pledge and find tips to eliminating bullying on your school campus.