Imagine you’re an 11-year-old middle-schooler just sitting in class, and suddenly something hits you as you‘re reading. Then, before you can even react, you’re called a faggot, and spit on.
Sounds horrific, but these types of harassment happened to Aaron on a regular basis when his family moved to Clarksville from Nashville and he began to attend Rossview Middle School.
Brandy Workman, Aaron’s mom, couldn’t figure why her son would be subjected to such ridicule. She reported the issue to school authorities, but didn’t see any resolution of the issue. She explained that a school official made it out to be Aaron’s fault, citing that his choice of literature (Twilight) and choice of clothing was to blame.
After several months Aaron began missing school, racking up almost a month of absences. According to his mother, Aaron sometimes said, ‘I’d rather kill myself than go to school.’
At this point, his mother requested a transfer, leading to a hearing in front of the school board for just cause. The two laid out their case, and the transfer was granted.
In recent years the state has stepped up its bullying statutes, but sometimes that doesn’t trickle down to the lower level. As any parent can tell you, just because a school district can, and should, enforce a policy doesn’t mean that it will.
“Incidents like this are a good reason for safe-schools organizations to exist,” said Chris Sanders, chair of the Tennessee Equality Project’s Nashville committee. “On the one hand, the state has taken some positive steps, and individual school districts have taken some positive steps, but the implementation has a long way to go. We’re glad to see some advocacy efforts under way.”
In Mississippi, a safe-schools organization helped nationalize the story of Constance McMillen, and her fight to bring her girlfriend to the high-school prom in her town. It’s hoped that Tennessee Safe Schools will be able to “pick up the torch and look out for these kids,” Sanders said.
When Gov. Phil Bredesen signed SB 1621 into law in 2006, he said that he hoped it would encourage school boards to confront bullying, and to ramp up their own methods of dealing with the problem.
“You obviously can’t pass a law at the state to make bullying go away, but it does force school boards to look at these circumstances and put things in place to try to address it,” Bredesen said at the time.
In Clarksville, the lengthy process that Workman and her son went through is the normal route for any transfer, according to Elise Shelton, chief communications officer for the Clarksville-Montgomery County School System.
Last year there were 103 cases of bullying, or “repeated negative behaviors intended to frighten or cause discomfort. These may include, but are not limited to verbal or written threats or physical harm,” as defined by the state for reporting purposes. With a student population of 29,000 this comes down to a miniscule .0035 percent of the student body inflicted by this issue within the Clarksville system, while the national average of those reporting bullying weighs in at a startling 17 percent.
Even with such a low level of bullying, Shelton says she established a program to spearhead the problem with specialized training of the school staff.
“We planned to have training for teachers in all of our schools within three years,” she explained, “But the training budget for 2010-11 was slashed, so that will be delayed until the budget can be restored.
CMCSS faces more than a $9 million cut of their budget for their next school year.
In the meantime, Dr. Sean Impeartrice, director of middle schools, CMCSS, gave an overview of how the school staff are instructed to handle issues like Aaron’s, and the consequences the abusers in these situations face.
“We’re charged to ensure that the children are safe,” he said. “In middle school is when we have to be aggressive due to individuals finding their identities. The better we know our kids, the better we know that something isn’t right.”
That goes for both sides of the fence, the bully’s parents and the parents of the one being bullied, he added, noting that the term ‘bullying’ can also be a catch-all phrase used too often, that sometimes there is a voluntary exchange among students where both parties entice each other.
Clarksville’s policies continue to be reviewed, and go well beyond the law as it is written, said Susan Jones, professional development coordinator.
“The district’s goal, overall, is to provide that safe learning environment for all students, and to be proactive rather than reactive in addressing bullying issues and to prevent them from occurring,” Jones said.
Since his transfer to New Providence Middle School, Aaron has only experienced a few minor instances of being picked on, and his new school’s staff quickly extinguished the situations. Still, Workman said that he definitely misses his old school in Nashville where his classmates were more tolerant.
“In 2010 it’s amazing that children are still being bullied for sexual orientation,” she said.