Scott Tibbs
August 25, 2003

Back to opinion page.

Harvey Milk School not the answer

I was bullied in school. In the fall of 1984, the bullying got so bad that I transferred from the government school system to a private Christian school. Even after the transfer, I did not escape being teased, though it wasn't quite as bad.

This is why I read with interest the decision to create a government-funded school for "homosexual" teens. The "Harvey Milk" school is named for a famous homosexual-rights activist. One of the stated objectives for this school is to shelter teens tempted by homosexuality from the relentless taunting and mocking "queer" kids often get in government schools.

Protecting kids from bullies is a laudable goal. But is this the answer to the problem? If we are going to have a government-funded school for teens tempted by homosexuality, why should there not be special schools for other kids who are singled out for bullying by their peers? Should the overweight kids, the kids with poor complexion, the kids with speech impediments or the general social misfits get their own schools too?

On April 20, 1999, two kids calling themselves the "Trench Coat Mafia" walked into their high school in Columbine, Colorado and murdered several classmates. They were the "nerds", tormented by their peers for being "different". Eventually, they snapped. While no one approves of what they did that day, teens and adults all over America understand how a teenager could be so tormented by cruel classmates that he feels violence is the only way to stop the pain.

The answer to bullying is not to separate targeted children and teens out of school. If anyone thinks that teens at the Harvey Milk school will be free from bullying, I have some ocean front property in Arizona to sell you. It is natural for children (especially teens) to single out people for teasing and bullying, and the teens who were picked on in other schools may revel in the opportunity to finally be in a position of power.

Not all special schools are a bad idea. Some children need special attention because they fall behind their peers. Other children need to be challenged and are bored because they are ahead of their peers. But these are academic reasons for a separate school, not social reasons.

The answer is that schools must take bullying seriously. For too long, a "boys will be boys" mentality allowed especially egregious bullying to go unpunished. It is true that no school will ever stop bullying, and to some extent children and teens need to learn to handle difficult people for when they are on their own in "the real world." But Columbine illustrated that not enough is done.

One answer is to allow expulsion to be more frequently used. In many cases, a bully is not getting any academic benefit from staying in school, but he or she is preventing other students from getting a good education. These students are so distracted by what is going to happen to them outside of class that they cannot concentrate in it. If the worst troublemakers are removed, it not only reduces the pressure on children at the lower rungs of the social ladder, it sends a message to other bullies that such behavior will not be tolerated.

Another option is to hold parents accountable for what their children do in school. If parents do nothing to stop their kids from bullying other kids, some method of punishing them should be considered. Perhaps a reasonable fine would encourage parents to properly instruct their children to not bully others.

Any reform intended to stop bullying must change the attitudes of teachers who allow it to go on. A teacher who allows a student to be tormented and does not step in should be fired, with no hope of ever working in that school system ever again. Of course, warnings should be issued first to give the offending "teacher" a chance to change his behavior but if he continues to allow bullying he should be gone. Teaching is not simply a job: it is a social contract with the parents and the children under one's care, and teachers have a moral responsibility to foster a safe learning environment. In government schools, this responsibility extends to every taxpayer in the district. If students are being denied a good education because teachers refuse to stop bullies, those tax dollars are being wasted.

The problem of bullying has been ignored for too long. This is too serious of an issue to be swept under the rug until the next major school shooting brings it back to our attention. If we continue to allow kids to be tormented and tortured by their peers, another Columbine is only a matter of time. Are we willing to have more blood on our hands because we did not stop this cycle of violence when we had a chance?