Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.
This wasn’t the case for Phillip Parker, a 14 year old from Gordonsville, Tennessee. For him, words were like a stone weighing on his chest – a heavy burden that he could never escape. Phillip endured relentless bullying at school, and when he approached staff for support his pleas were ignored, sometimes even mocked. On Friday January 20, the words became too much. He took his own life.
What could possibly make it alright for students and staff to disregard Phillip’s right to a safe education? Sexual orientation. Identifying as gay, he became a victim of endless homophobic harassment.
Gordonsville School District’s Mission Statement promises that they are “committed to helping all students develop the skills necessary to thrive in the face of life’s challenges,” and that this education will “take place in a secure environment free from violence, drugs, and fear.” Gordonsville High School certainly did not uphold their mission statement when handling the situations faced by Phillip Parker.
He is not alone.
Findings from the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network’s (GLSEN) 2009 National School Climate Survey reveal that nearly two thirds (61.1 percent) of students reported that they felt unsafe in school because of their sexual orientation, and nearly 9 out of 10 LGBT youth have been harassed at school within the last year. When reporting instances of harassment to school personnel, a third of the students found that the staff members took no action to address the issue. The staff did nothing.
Silence is deadly.
A more recent study published by GLSEN, Playgrounds and Prejudice, indicates that 45% of elementary school students report hearing the word “gay” used in a negative connotation, such as “That’s so gay.” In addition, 75% of the elementary respondents reported witnessing regular bullying or harassment of peers.
There is a clear issue in our school system that needs to be addressed. Every student deserves the opportunity to receive an education in a safe and inclusive environment, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender expression. There is no excuse as to why homophobia isn’t firmly addressed in every school. It is an issue that pushes our youth to take their lives, and by not openly addressing it we condone it.
This is a call to arms: take it upon yourself to stand up for all of the Phillip Parkers of the world. Be a voice and advocate for their safety. Attend a local school board meeting and openly question how they address harassment – you will likely catch them by surprise – and press them to adopt policies that specifically include sexual orientation and gender expression.
By allowing harassment and bullying of LGBT students to continue, each and every one of us helped to tie the noose that took Phillip’s life. When you are not part of the solution, you are the problem. It is time for us to put an end to this epidemic before another child turns to suicide to find freedom.
Don’t wait. You never know, it could be your brother wanting to die.