OutFront Minnesota, the largest gay-rights organization in the state, will hold a vigil 7 p.m. tonight at Loring Park in response to several student suicides in the Anoka-Hennepin school district which have been attributed to bullying.
The vigil is commendable, but not entirely unique. These gatherings have been taking place across the country amid a perceived rise in suicides involving gay teens who were bullied. But as Liz Goodwin of Yahoo points out, these vigils and overzealously attributing the act of suicide to gay bullying may be compounding the problem.
For her story, Goodwin interviewed Ann Haas, research director for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Haas argues that singling out gay bullying as a cause for suicide — and not acknowledging mental illness — has the potential to normalize the act and inspire other teens who’ve been bullied. Haas says:
“We know quite a bit about what kinds of media stories can encourage copycat suicides … There’s an identification there that could lead you to feel, well, ‘My goodness, this person was feeling the same thing that I’m feeling, and he took his life.’ It kind of normalizes suicide. It presents it as a sort of an understandable if not socially acceptable response to a problem. If a story is presented from the viewpoint of the mental disorders that commonly lead to suicide, it’s much less likely to have that kind of identification that leads young people to copy the behavior.”
OutFront Minnesota is calling on Minnesota lawmakers to draft an anti-bullying policy for Minnesota public schools during the upcoming special session. It’s hard to say what that policy would look like in terms of implementation and enforcement. Any legislation would lean heavily on Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969), which gave schools the right to punish conduct that would “materially and substantially interfere with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school.” The same decision supports disciplining verbally abusive bullies, so long as school officials were “able to show that [their] action was caused by something more than a mere desire to avoid the discomfort and unpleasantness that always accompany an unpopular viewpoint.” In this case, it would be about protecting bullied students.
I know a teacher who argues anti-bullying policy is the wrong way to go. She believes creating a bubble of protection around a student, particularly a gay student, would harm their emotional development, creating bigger issues down the road. The idea is kids who are different must develop thick skin, and they can’t do it when school is made into a utopian, idealistic environment. She argues some of us will always be the last picked or the least popular. How will a child develop their character and strength if they’re fooled to think otherwise? It’s an interesting, albeit hard-to-swallow concept.
I’m in the camp that believes creating an anti-bullying policy is just spitting on the fire. There are many organizations who’ve already changed their messaging in light of recent events. “Tolerance is good” is being replaced by, “Hell yeah, it’s hard being gay. But you’re loved.” Kudos to The Trevor Project and Dan Savage’s It Gets Better Project for leading the way.
At this point, the media has a responsibility to examine why, all of the sudden, gay teens are committing suicide. There isn’t one element to these stories — homosexuality, bullying, suicide — that’s unique to here and now. What’s inspired this unfortunate behavior? The question everyone’s too uncomfortable to ask: Are these suicides being glorified?
What’s your take? Why the sudden rise? Should schools institute an anti-bullying policy?