(Pic by 04deveni)

The recent string of suicides across the nation because of anti-gay bullying has elevated discussions of school bullying, especially in regard to LGBT students, to the national level. It’s a debate that’s not new in the state of Florida.

In 2008, Florida passed the Jeffrey Johnston Stand up for All Students Act, which was named after a Cape Coral student who committed suicide in 2005 after being the victim of bullying.

The law requires local school districts to adopt policies which prohibit bullying and harassment of any student or employee in a public K-12 school. But some have questioned the effectiveness of the law, because it does not include specific protections for LGBT students.

Equality Florida, an organization that works to secure equal rights for Florida’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender residents, was formed in 1997, and Brian Winfield, the organization’s director of communications, says one of its first priorities was passing a statewide anti-bullying bill.

“We were hearing across the state how terrible the anti-LGBT bullying was,” Winfield says. “We were seeing young LGBT people dropping out of school and skipping classes.”

Community organizations, such as the Florida NAACP, Planned Parenthood, as well as Equality Florida, formed the Florida Safe Schools Coalition and began working to pass anti-bullying legislation. Beginning in 2000, an anti-bullying bill was introduced every year in the Florida legislature until the Jeffrey Johnston law was passed in 2008.

Florida’s law is among the best anti-bullying laws in the nation, according to Bully Police, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting people who are dealing with bullying situations. The organization supports grassroots efforts to get anti-bullying laws passed and grades individual states on an A to F scale based on their laws.

Grading criteria is based on 12 points, such as whether the law is clearly an anti-bullying law and not a school safety law.

Forty-five states have enacted anti-bullying legislation; Florida is one of three to receive a grade of A++. In fact, Bully Police revised its own “perfect law” to model Florida’s. States receive an A++ only when the law emphasizes victims’ access to free counseling and includes a clause about cyberbullying.

“[The Florida] law is beautiful; it’s a dream,” says Judy Kuczynski, the president of Bully Police. “It gives schools something workable, something they can model into policy.”

LGBT advocates disagree.

Winfield says that the initial Florida anti-bullying bill included specific definitions of LGBT victims. However, State Rep. Nicholas Thompson, R-Fort Myers, who spearheaded the bill, insisted the LGBT definition be removed from it so that the bill could be passed more quickly. Winfield says gay rights groups did not want to prevent the bill’s passage, and conceded.

Kuczynski says anti-bullying laws should not specifically define victims.

“The bullying policies should be written well enough that any kind of derogatory attack, anything that attempts to humiliate, attack or harm, should be stopped and punished,” she says.

It is better to leave bullying policies broad and not create victim categories so that victims “do not fall through the cracks,” according to Kuczynski.

“If you’ve got a good bullying policy, how can that go on in a school and be allowed? When you start defining victims, you start limiting the effectiveness,” she says.

Kuczynski says the law should be written in such a way that the kind of bullying – whether LGBT or not – doesn’t matter.

“This is not a gay and lesbian issue,” she says. “This is a human issue.”

However, Equality Florida’s Winfield says the best anti-harassment policies in the nation include specific victim categories.

“It may be politically expedient to leave LGBT people out, but, next to physical appearance, anti-gay harassment is the most common form of bullying,” he says. “If you pick six or seven categories, you cover 98 percent of bullying. With categories, you’re crystal clear with administration and what they need to look for.”

After the Jeffrey Johnston law passed, LGBT groups took it upon themselves to secure protections for LGBT students.

Winfield says Equality Florida immediately started working with local school districts to implement policies that include protections for LGBT students. Currently more than 66 percent of Florida students have sexual orientation protections and about 44 percent have gender identity protections, he says.

Inititally, Equality Florida created a model policy based on the policy the Broward School District already had, which included protections for both sexual orientation and gender identity. The Department of Education then provided that sample policy to other school districts.

Winfield says some districts adopted policy similar to the sample, but some did not simply due to an oversight or a lack of resources.

“In some places, it’s a matter of them not wanting to address a sometimes controversial issue,” Winfield says. “They don’t want to rile the religious conservatives to come out to meetings, but that happens less than people might expect.”

Winfield has not encountered a district that was completely resistant to adding LGBT protections. He says all of the school districts Equality Florida has worked with have approached the organization for help.

Certain events, such as the recent incidents of suicide in the news, heighten the conversation around the issue, causing more districts to contact the organization for help, he says.

In June, the Hillsborough County School Board voted unanimously to add gender identity protections to the Nondiscrimination and Equal Employment Policy. Sexual orientation was already included in the policy.

April Griffin, the school board member who led the effort, says the protection was added to the district’s overall harassment policy, rather than the Safe Schools policy, to ensure that teachers and employees, as well as students, are protected.

“It’s not just students who are bullied because of their sexual identity,” she says. “It is teachers, as well, at the hands of students.”

Griffin said there was no resistance to the change in policy.

“I was absolutely shocked that we didn’t see a community response to the suggestion,” she says. “It passed very quietly.”

Safe Schools South Florida, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to teach respect for everyone, regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation, provides training at little or no cost to school administrators to help them effectively confront LGBT issues. The organization also helped pass the Jeffrey Johnston law.

Robert Loupo, the group’s executive director, agrees that anti-bullying laws should include specific LGBT protections.

“Without naming specifically the various persons who need to be protected, it’s very easy to forget that those persons are those we need to be supporting,” Loupo says. “Just look at our constitution for this country — we’re all equal under the law, but it also states that every slave counts as three fifths of a vote. The law can state broadly ‘all are equal under the law,’ but without work by civil rights groups for specific people, those protections would not have been there.”

“By naming these different categories of protection, it really clearly underscores the support that must be out there for them and how they can access some of that support,” Loupo adds.

Loupo may be right. As of the 2010-2011 school year, schools are required to collect specific data on bullying. School officials must fill out specific forms if the harassment is on the basis of disability, race or sex. There are no forms for sexual orientation or gender identity.

Loupo says in order to effectively combat the problem of bullying, ongoing training as well as trained personnel and financial support need to be provided to schools. Because of the economic downturn, he says, schools are taking a big hit.

According to Debra Higgins, an information specialist at the Florida Department of Education, there is no specific federal or state funding dedicated to bullying prevention.

“With the passing of the Jeffrey Johnston Act, the expectation for school districts to comply and adhere with the statutory requirements was, and continues to be tied to the release of Safe Schools Appropriations to school districts,” Higgins writes in an email. “These funds have been appropriated by the Legislature as a part of the Florida Education Finance Program in the annual Appropriations Act since 1994 in various forms.”

During the 2009-2010 school year, $67,260,840 was appropriated for Safe Schools activities. $65,387 was distributed to districts; the balance was allocated according to the Florida Crime Index provided by the Department of Law Enforcement and each district’s share of the state’s unweighted school enrollment.

According to Higgins, Safe Schools activities include after-school programs for middle school students; other improvements to enhance the learning environment, including implementation of conflict resolution strategies; alternative school programs for adjudicated youth; suicide prevention programs and other improvements to make the school a safe place to learn.

The Department of Education has collected data relevant to bullying since 2006. There were 5,730 reported incidents of bullying during the 2007-2008 school year and 5,665 in the 2008-2009 school year. Preliminary data for 2009-2010 indicates there were 6,134 incidents.

Loupo says after the Jeffrey Johnston law was passed, there has been more awareness of the harm that bullying does.

“In some ways, you might see the fact that there is an increase in some of the reporting of bullying,” he says. “But I think it’s just part of the shakedown in that something we know about and see is reported, so the numbers go up. But in a lot of ways, that’s only natural.”

Winfield says the evidence he sees that the Jeffrey Johnston law has been effective is the growth of the Florida Gay Straight Alliance Network. A GSA is a school club, usually in middle or high school, which promotes respect among students, regardless of sexual orientation. The Florida Network was recognized as the fastest-growing GSA network in 2009.

“We see straight allies who are willing to step up, who are not willing to put up with anti-gay harassment,” Winfield says. “It’s a good indicator that the school climate is beginning to shift.”

Winfield says while it is extraordinarily sad to hear of students committing suicide because of bullying, it is not surprising.

“Anti-bullying has been our number one priority for over 10 years,” he says. “Whether [the student is] gay or not gay is not important. Almost universally, their harassers were targeting them because they perceived that they were gay. Schools have got to be held accountable to ensure that every student is able to go to school in a safe learning environment.”

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