Anti-bullying has dominated the discussion among mainstream and LGBT websites alike but what seems curiously absent is the discussion on strategies that are helping to quell rates of bullying. While a broader national bill is necessary, particularly in more conservative states that feature anti-LGBTQ youth bills, by focusing on the efforts of local governments we can learn how to approach new legislation anti-bullying at all levels of government.
In particular, by highlighting the the efforts of Philadelphia, which has a history of progressive anti-bullying legislation, we can began to understand how anti-bullying legislation works to keep students safe only when proper enforcement procedures are in place.
Policies in Philadelphia have explicitly mentioned sexual orientation since The Board of Education adopted Policy 123, "Adolescent Sexuality," in June 1991. Though the policy explicitly states that "the Board of Education firmly asserts that abstinence from sexual activity during adolescence promotes good health and a healthy lifestyle," it also affirmed that the board must "assure a safe, equitable and positive school experience for lesbian and gay students."
This earliest policy, however, failed to include any specific strategies of how to enforce anti-bullying legislation.
In 2004, under a School Reform Commission report, Philadelphia adopted Policy 102, "Multiracial-Multicultural-Gender Education." For the first time, the school board included "sexual orientations (perceived or known) and gender identities (perceived or known)" within their initial policy statement. They also included "Policy Procedure" and "Investigation" sections that summarize their plans on promoting a more equitable curriculum and enforce any grievances students might make with the district.
But in January 2010, after a series of racially motivated bullying incidents toward Asian immigrants at South Philadelphia High School, the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations intervened to conduct 11 public hearings over the year that featured over 130 witnesses, including LGBTQ students and adults, who gave their experiences with bullying.
These conflicts, and the resulting report, Widening Our Circle of Concern, (which can be found in full here) helped recognize the continued failures of enforcing these anti-bullying policies and offered distinct strategies to enforce these policies.
As a first step, in September of 2010, the School Reform Commission adopted Policy 248, "Policy For Unlawful Harassment," and Policy 249, "Bullying/Cyberbullying," that include both explicit definitions of these terms and offer step-by-step complaint procedures that more specifically list how to report problems and how the district must handle these reports.
To specifically address the problems LGBTQ youth face, the city's Office of LGBT Affairs has organized the LGBTQ Advisory Committee. The result was the creation of the Community Service Directory for LGBTQ Youth, directed toward all district adults in direct contact with students, that lists these established district policies, offers resources list of organizations locally and nationally that support LGBTQ youth, FAQs for how educators can speak to students about sexuality and gender identity and offers a glossary of commonly used terms in the LGBTQ community.
According to Gloria Casarez, who heads the Office of LGBT Affairs, the next step is developing a district wide curriculum that would include LGBTQ content, specifically books and movies, divided by elementary, middle and high school levels. As Casarez explained, "Curriculum and LGBT bullying are very different, but if you have reflective curricula that talk about people in a positive light you will have fewer negative reactions to these people."
These steps alone, however, cannot solve the current crisis. As Widening the Circle of Our Concern indicated, "Despite these positive efforts, the widespread presence of unresolved intergroup conflicts remains." What, then, are the next steps that will extend beyond Policies 248 and 249?
One of the first recommendations that the report made was that Policy 248 be amended to provide appeals procedures for any official district decisions, an additional complaint procedure that investigates the district's failure to explore a report of harassment and an explicit description of language access services the district provides.
At the same time, the report suggested that the district create a permanent staff position to "strengthen intergroup harmony and coordinate all activities relevant to this report." This staff person would likely help implement other recommendations, including individual school anti-discrimination policies, peer mediation programs and the integration of restorative justice practices, which emphasize positive behavior practices, promote dialogue between victim and offender and offer community service opportunities that are not "solely punitive."
While it's impossible to imagine schools free from bullying entirely, it's clear that existing efforts to strengthen anti-bullying preventions for LGBTQ cannot depend on the simple legal principle that LGBTQ students be protected. Philadelphia is a model of how, in embracing an approach that stresses staff and faculty education, specific enforcement recommendations, formal complaint procedures and community involvement, the effects of bullying can be lessened. The result is a more equitable climate can be created for all students.
In a time when GLSEN reports that nearly 90% of LGBTQ students reported some form of harassment within the past year, beginning these discussions on how to implement these policies changes in other school districts could not be more important.