Addressing the issue of bullying

6 June 2014 met with bullying expert Joe Kosciw from GLSEN and discussed the issue, particularly with reference to LGBT bullying.

How would you describe bullying?

I am a researcher at heart so in the U.S. at least there is a lot of debate about what is defined as bullying, but I think in schools when I think about teachers and students they don't necessarily know the specifics. The official definition is that it's something that happens over a period of time, there is usually a power differential, so one student has more power; they're older, bigger, stronger, more popular. It's not usually a one time event. So people who are bullied in school feel like this is an ongoing basis, it's not just getting into one fight. And it's often related to them. People are often bullied because of who they are, how they present their gender. If it's a boy who is not masculine enough. It could be because of race, ethnicity so that's why I think in the United States the power differential comes out.

What do you as a "bullying expert" do exactly?

I work at GLSEN, which is an NGO which is almost 25 years old, and actually GLSEN started working on creating safes in schools for all students but with special attention to lgbt students in the US. And it did a lot of work before bullying became such a widely discussed phenomenon. I remember being in my early years at GLSEn hearing people talk about bullying like it was just becoming sort of the topic that people were taking about. So GLSEn as an organization provides programs, research, often works with educators to give them the skills to make a difference in their schools, to know how to address bullying when they see it. We work with students to try to get them to be leaders in their school and we work with the Gay-Straight alliances. What I do at GLSEN with most of my time is I started doing research on bullying for 15 years and every two years we do a national survey of lgbt students about their experiences in school, and I think that that's been valuable because we've been able to say here is the information that we have. We can demonstrate that for example 80% of students are experiencing harassment at school, and that's convincing now to educators and policy makers. So I work with children education programs to improve the work that they do in schools, and teacher training, and working with youth to develop youth leadership.

What are the warning signs of bullying?

A student who has had a sudden change in their mood or behavior, someone who doesn't want to go to school, someone whose grades in school are suddenly dropping. I think these are all significant warning signs. Especially going to school and wanting to miss certain classes, students who go home and they're missing things; suddenly they don't have their phone. Kids who are coming home and their property is damaged, their clothes are damaged; those are all signs of something probably going on at school and probably victimization of bullying of some kind.

About 9 out of 10 LGBT teens have reported being bullied at school within the past year because of their sexual orientation, according to the most recent gay bullying statistics. What can be done within schools and communities to create a tolerant and safe environment for them?

Those are my statistics! I think for lgbt students there are four things we do in the U.S to promote a safe school experience and one is, the most important is having a supportive teacher at school, which makes a huge difference in the life of the student, so what we provide is professional development, teacher q&a, we provide materials. Most teachers want to help but don't know how. We support teachers in their gay-straight alliances. I think these student clubs are an important source of support for students in schools. We hear about a lot of these clubs who go and meet with their principles to try to get the school to change what their policies are and how to make a difference. Policies in the U.S. make a difference; if as policy at school prohibits bullying then it is easier for a student to address the problem, so we believe schools should have policies and then last but not least, its not very common, that the curriculum, which is what students are learning in school should be inclusive of lgbt history and events.

How did you become involved with this sensitive issue? Did you ever experience any bullying growing up?

I think about this a lot. I don't think it was as much of a problem in my high school as it is now. And I'm curious. I some times want to go back to my high school to see if tings are better now. I certainly had some problems with students as everyone does in school but it wasn't as a severe experience as I hear from students today. But also I went to school a long long time ago so the topic of being gay it wasn't something that came up. I came to this because I was a school counselor and I sort of saw the different way that students were being negatively affected by their interactions with their peers.

What words of advice would you offer to a kid or teen that is being bullied?

I think it's very important for them to reach out for support to someone. If they feel like they can't talk to their parents about it, or a brother or a sister, they ought to reach out to a supportive person at school, whether that's a teacher. If they have an adult in their life, a coach or a school counselor or they can talk to the principle if they feel comfortable. The problem is that a lot of students feel like they've talked to their school and most commonly they say that teachers are not doing anything about it. I those cases it is very important for them to tell a parent because they then need to advocate for them in school.

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