In a heartbreaking irony of circumstance, 15-year-old Billy Lucas killed himself during National Suicide Prevention Week. Billy was the victim of merciless bullying. While he never self-identified as gay, he was cruelly harassed for being different, and many of the taunts accused him of being gay. Last Thursday, a student pulled a chair out from under Billy and told him to go home and kill himself. And Billy did, hanging himself in the family barn.
Fellow students of Greensburg Community High School in Indiana said that Billy's harassment was common knowledge. A former student--now an adult--claimed that bullying is a long-standing tradition at Greensburg High. He stated he was personally affected as well by Billy's death, having attempted suicide himself while a student at the school.
In an astonishingly callous remark, Greensburg High principal Phil Chappel seemed almost to blame Billy for his own persecution: "Sometimes he created an atmosphere around him like a little tornado, you know, because he went around doing things that made dust fly." This moral ambivalence shows a shocking lack of understanding, and I urge the Greensburg school board to pursue anti-bullying education for the school staff immediately.
The board is forming a committee comprised of teachers and students to address the issue. No "study of the situation" is necessary at this point; it is easy to see the school is in a crisis and probably has been for some time. Having been a teacher, I know that if the students are aware as a population, it cannot escape the attention of staff unless they are in a climate that encourages looking the other way. They must change the school culture as soon as possible for the safety of all of the students in their care. I know from personal experience that talking about teasing and bullying does make a difference.
Communicating unambiguous behavior expectations and enforcing that as the norm will change behavior. When I was a student teacher at a middle school, a timid young girl was the target of ugly teasing in the halls. It was clear she did not know how to defend herself. After it became obvious this was a pattern, I asked my mentor teacher to please send her on an errand that would take some time. When she was gone, I spelled it out to the class. They had never seen me angry before, but there was no question how I felt about her treatment. I told them that this behavior would stop now. And you know what? It did stop. The kids took it to heart, and she was never teased in my presence again.
GLSEN just released the results of a study documenting the experiences of over 7000 LGBT students. In 2009, nearly 9 out of 10 of those students reported having been harassed at school in the prior year. Almost a third skipped at least one day of school in the prior month due to safety concerns (compared to 7% nationally).
The report gives some hope: the presence of a Gay-Straight Alliance led to more positive school experiences, including less victimization. Having a supportive staff and an effective anti-bullying policy led to higher attendance, reports of feeling safer, higher achievement, and greater staff intervention on incidents of harassment and assault.
This is not a problem just in rural Indiana. The CDC states that suicide is the third leading cause of death in people age 15 to 24. More than 600,000 teens make the attempt every year. Lesbian, gay and bisexual youth are four times more likely to make the attempt, and nearly half of young transgender people have considered taking their lives.
If you or someone you know is young and LGBT or questioning, The Trevor Project can help with your queries and doubts. Know the danger signs. Take them seriously, every single time. Be aware and act. We must have the conviction to use the knowledge we possess. Honor Billy's life by giving power to his death: let it save others' lives.