Thousands of middle and high school students across the country have taken a vow of silence today in an effort to raise awareness of and combat the bullying of students based on their sexual identity or orientation.
The 15th annual Day of Silence is one of the nation’s largest student-run events. It started at the University of Virginia and has been sponsored since 2001 by the GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network.
Founded by Kevin Jennings, who now is a top Education Department official, the organization seeks to get the issue on the radar of teachers and administrators as a serious one worth tackling.
“Anti-LGBT bullying is a pervasive problem in America’s schools and creates unsafe learning environments for countless youth,” GLSEN Executive Director Eliza Byard said in a statement. “The Day of Silence was created by students as a simple yet powerful way to raise awareness about a problem that very few schools adequately address.”
Among the schools planning to take part are some in Hoboken, N.J. and Modesto, Calif. In Chicago, students from several schools plan to meet in Millennium Park for a 15-minute period of silence this evening. And in Richland, Mich., some high school students are planning an art exhibition to help commemorate the day. You can follow along via Twitter to see what’s happening in other places.
No matter what state they are in, the suddenly silent teenagers won’t be a quiet mystery to their teachers and peers. Students have speaking cards that explain their reasons for not talking. Teachers at the schools have been told in advance of the plans for the day, but students who are called upon in class are required to answer their teachers.
As I wrote last fall, tackling school bullying, especially against LGBT-identifying students, has become a major school safety priority in many communities, a concern that has grown as more students come out at a younger age, as this much-talked about story in The New York Times Magazine last fall attests.
Students who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender (or who other students assume are) experience not only taunting and ridicule, but physical violence from some of their peers.
A research brief, published last fall by GLSEN, found many LGBT-identifying middle school students were reporting harassment and hearing homophobic epithets at school on a regular basis.
Of course, because sexual identity is a sensitive topic in our country, not everyone believes the discussion has a place in schools. In this Fox News story, some conservative family advocacy groups say activities like the Day of Silence are a waste of taxpayer money and promote an agenda that may not be welcomed by all families.
The American Family Association called on its members to pull children from school today, a move much like the time groups called on parents to pull students out of school in September during President Obama’s lunchtime address to students.
“We send our kids there to learn the subject matter, not ... to be unwillingly exposed to political protest during instructional time,” Laurie Higgins, director of school advocacy for the Illinois Family Institute, told the cable news channel.
But others say schools must address this. For some students, the bullying has led to death.
Carl Walker-Hoover hung himself last April after he was repeatedly taunted by students in his Massachusetts middle school. Students, his mother told a Congressional committee, called him a “faggot” and threatened to kill the 11-year-old. Carl did not identify himself as gay.
Just over a year since his death, Carl’s older sister, Dominique Walker, has taken up the cause, and is leading students at her school, The MacDuffie School in Springfield, in Day of Silence activities.
“I don’t really want to hear another story about my brother or the next Phoebe Prince,” Dominique told me last night. “I don’t want to see the tragedy that has fallen on my family on another.”
The 16-year-old ordered t-shirts and bracelets for students to wear today and explained the concept to her fellow students. Most of the school’s approximately 250 students will participate, she said.
“The silence (that day) is amazing, and it is really sad at the same time to notice how students who are harassed don’t say anything and bystanders don’t say anything,” Dominique said. “If you see someone being picked on, you don’t have to sit there and watch. You can cut in and say, ‘This isn’t cool’.”
Photo credit: Dominique Walker shows the slient sign. Courtesy of GLSEN.
A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.