Stand Up, Speak Out: Despite Challenges, High School Students Confront Bullying

In October, I stepped into the raucous noise of a high school event. I don't have children, and the chaos made me momentarily cower. If you're not used to them, young people are loud and little frightening. I attended the event to show support to my niece, Dharani Persaud (who I've written about before). Dharani is very involved with social justice work. I was curious what that meant to high school students. I was also relieved when we gathered in the auditorium and things quieted down.

The event was organized by Dharani and other students at Stand Up, Speak Out, a project by The Blake School Justice League and Minnesota Safe Schools For All Coalition. It was supported by OutFront Minnesota and various other groups. According to their mission, "Stand Up, Speak Out is a student led initiative working towards the reduction and ultimately the elimination of bullying in Minnesota schools." They designed a compelling presentation that shared stories of bullying, discrimination and abuse.

Stand Up, Speak Out invited students whose schools may not offer support for social equity or anti-bullying programs (Blake is a private school). They encouraged students who had experienced, witnessed or perpetrated bullying to submit their stories, anonymously, if needed. The stories were read aloud by other students. One of the most unexpectedly powerful aspects of the evening was having, say, a girl in a hijab read aloud about being bullied for being very tall in middle school. When a Muslim girl stands up to share a story about living with bullying, I expect to hear a story about being Muslim. This method emphasized that everyone who experiences bullying is united in their fear and feelings of helplessness. It confronted expectations and prejudices. It was jarring. It was effective.

Some students did tell their own stories. "When you look at me, what do you see? A girl? Or a brown girl?" asked Mashal Sherzad, an Afghani-American who has grown up in the shadow of 9/11. She talked about wanting the attention of a boy she had a crush on; when she got his attention, it was in the form of a racial slur. She said there is "class and race warfare [in our schools]." Another girl, Ryan Whitely, told of being encircled by boys she knew, who began to feign kicking and hitting her. None of the blows landed. As they pretended to beat her, they chanted "Kick the Jew, kick the Jew." Patrick Dunphy expressed that the need for students with learning differences to have more time on tests is often mocked, because other students feels it gives an unfair academic advantage.

"These Scars," written and performed by Katie Emory, was a chilling spoken-word history of a young boy attacked by his peers in a locker room. Like this one, some stories were not limited to verbal abuse and intimidation, but outright assault resulting in broken bones, hospital stays, and life-long scars: visible and invisible. The disturbing number of recent suicides in the Anoka-Hennepin School District remind us that the children with scars are the ones who survived.

We all know bullying is happening, but the reality is astonishingly painful. I came to the event to show support. I left disturbed by what young people endure, humbled by their strength, and angered by the adult world which too often allows these environments to fester. Blake students are lucky to have caring, committed school administrators and teachers. When I complemented Scott Fleming, Director of the Blake Office of Equity and Community Engagement, on the well-organized and impressive presentation, he laughed and said "The kids did all this. I just got out of their way." The only adults who spoke that evening were Senator Al Franken and Senator D. Scott Dibble. Senator Franken was not able to attend in person, but sent a video message of support. Senator Dibble addressed the need for legislation to support safe school environments, especially for LGBT youth.

Minnesota's largest school district, Anoka-Hennepin, has a much-debated policy that states "neutrality" when it comes to LGBT issues. This controversial policy is associated with rampant bullying, discrimination and related suicides of LGBT and other students, and is currently the subject of numerous lawsuits and a Federal Investigation from The U. S. Justice Department and the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights. Congresswoman Michele Bachmann has been criticized for inaction regarding these issues in her district. In 2006, she stated that "there have always been bullies, always have been always will be," and that it seems unrealistic to "expect a zero tolerance of bullying behavior." Her more current suggestion to combat bullying is to eliminate the Department of Education.

Despite the gravity of these challenges, the Stand Up, Speak Out event was emotional but not gloomy. Besides sharing stories, the students sang, their young voices clear and lovely. At the end, we all stood together to sing "Lean on Me." It was noisy, off-tune, and utterly affecting.

There was one unplanned moment of silence. Justin Anderson, a recent graduate of the Anoka-Hennepin School District and a plaintiff in one of the cases against them, was in attendance and scheduled to speak. However, a statement was read explaining that just a few minutes before he left his home, he was informed that he was no longer able to speak publicly about events pertaining to the case. While it's wonderful that Blake students included Mr. Anderson and those from other schools, the question remains why Anoka-Hennepin School District will not protect their own vulnerable students, or at least organize meetings to discuss and confront these challenges.

More than anything, Stand Up, Speak Out challenges and encourages students to stop turning away when they witness bullying. Claire Bryan of Southwest High School observed that "students don't always care what adults think," so it's up to peers to set an example, support respectful behavior, and refuse to tolerate bullying in any form.

What's a grown-up to do?

When young people stand up and speak out, we need to sit down and shut up. When they ask for help, we cannot be quiet. When they tell us that our schools harbor bullying, discrimination and abuse, we need to take it seriously. Children are not just being emotionally and physically scarred; some are dying rather than face another day at school. We must hold school districts and elected officials accountable for upholding basic human rights, especially for vulnerable groups like LGBT youth. When these structures fail, and many of them are clearly failing, students need support to educate their peers at events such as Stand Up, Speak Out. I hardly need to point out that education is supposed be our job, not theirs. Be proud of them for what they accomplish despite our failure.

Yes, young people are loud, and what they say can be frightening. We better listen up.

One moment from the event that has stayed with me more than any other: Gabe Aderhold, a student at Edina High School, talked about approaching conservative elected officials and asking if he, as a gay teen, deserved the same protection as other kids. They responded with silence.