When you were a student bullied for being gay, what would you want your parents to know?
Chances are, you were bullied in school. A bunch of us were — and research backs it up. But what if the school had notified your parents of the bullying — and outed you in the process?
More than a third of LGBTQ youth were bullied on school property, the 2015 Youth Risk Behavior Survey reports, with 2017 results to be posted this spring. Even worse, gay youth are much more likely to be victims of electronic bullying, dating violence, even forced sexual intercourse.
The results on victims are devastating, not just on their educational environment and their mental health, but on significantly increased risks of suicide and higher HIV diagnoses.
Progress is being made with anti-bullying campaigns that unite educators, students and parents. States and schools across the nation have rallied with initiatives, policies and legislation to fight bullying.
Yet the progress and the process are not as clearcut.
That’s the risk of policies with full notification to parents. It’s one thing when supportive parents are involved. It’s far less certain when parents are possibly supportive, or eventually supportive, let alone when parents are unsupportive or hostile.
Who gets to make the decision on outing the student? A teacher? A counselor? An administrator? Law enforcement?
A teacher might see kind, loving parents at a parent/teacher conference, but those parents might be less supportive, even cruel behind closed doors at home. A teacher or counselor might dislike the student or have an anti-gay agenda. An administrator might be fearful of conservative parents.
When you factor in the varying acceptance and varying support for LGBTQ youth, the process is far less clear.
“I cannot live anymore”
The Associated Press reports that eight states have laws requiring schools notify parents when their child is being bullied or is bullying other kids. I’m a parent of three sons. They’re now adults, but when they were kids, I would have wanted to know. Immediately.
So my heart aches for Richard and Christine Taras, of Moreau, New York. Their son, Jacobe, was 13 when he died by suicide in 2015.
“Dear Mom and Dad, I’m sorry but I cannot live anymore,” Jacobe had written on a sheet of notebook paper. “I just can’t deal with all the bullies, being called gay … being told to go kill myself. I’m also done with being pushed, punched, tripped.”
He concluded with “I LOVE YOU.” Jacobe killed himself with his father’s shotgun.
“We had no idea of the extent or the seriousness of what was going on,” Jacobe’s father, Richard, said. “My son didn’t tell me, and the school didn’t pass along the information they had.”
I can only imagine the agony of the Tarases. They channeled their pain into “Jacobe’s Law,” proposed legislation in New York that would require schools to notify students of bullying. It has twice passed the New York Senate, but its future is uncertain in the Assembly.
Such a directive could help many students. But it could also hurt LGBTQ youth who are not out. They may be even more fearful of reporting bullying if their parents might be notified.
That’s the perspective of Ikaika Regidor, director of education and youth programs for GLSEN, which advocates for safe schools for LGBTQ youth.
“While it’s important for parents to be aware if their children are being bullied in school, it’s also imperative to remember that LGBTQ students may not be out to their family or may not have supportive families,” Regidor said.
What about the student’s privacy?
There’s some federal legal support for Regidor’s position. After a high-school football player was outed to his parents by police officers in Pennsylvania, a federal court ruled in 2001 that the constitution prohibits governments from delving into the sexual orientation of Americans.
The challenges have prompted state officials in New Jersey, with strict anti-bullying statutes, to discuss and reconsider automatic notification.
“There are laws that restrict what school officials can tell a parent about anything the official has discovered about the student’s sexual orientation or gender identification,” said Bob Farrace, spokesman for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, told the Associated Press.
“Where notification might lead into that conversation puts the official into a very difficult spot,” Farrace said. “We just need to make sure laws are reconciled.”
Even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tiptoes around protecting LGBTQ youth who are not out. Its site praises gay-straight alliances and trainings for school staff. It encourages positive parenting practices. It even recognizes that unsupportive parents make it harder for youths to thrive.
What it doesn’t do, however, is offer guidance to protect the privacy of LGBTQ youth.
Good intentions may not translate into good outcomes
These situations are difficult, sometimes profoundly so. With the best of intentions, an educator may wrestle over the approach and conclude that outing the student to parents will lead to a greater good.
Yet it very well might not. With all due respect, that’s a risk we should not take with a fragile student in danger, with a student who has constitutional rights, with a student who should be control of this personal journey.
The issue has a renewed urgency beyond the push for Jacobe’s Law. I’m looking forward to the March 16 release of “Love, Simon,” the film starring Nick Robinson, directed by Greg Berlanti, and based upon the novel Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, by Becky Albertalli.
We’ll witness the story of Simon, a closeted gay teen threatened by a blackmailer as he navigates life and love. I have no spoilers to alert you about. I’ve seen only the trailer, and I’ve dabbed the tears in my eyes every time I’ve watched it.
So let’s celebrate “Simon.” And let’s figure out ways to help closeted LGBTQ youth without outing them.