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I’m a little boy with glasses

The one they call the geek

A little girl who never smiles

‘Cause I’ve got braces on my teeth

And I know how it feels

To cry myself to sleep

I’m that kid on every playground

Who’s always chosen last

A single teenage mother

Tryin’ to overcome my past

You don’t have to be my friend

But is it too much to ask

Don’t laugh at me

Don’t call me names

Don’t get your pleasure from my pain

In God’s eyes we’re all the same

Someday we’ll all have perfect wings

Don’t laugh at me

I’m fat, I’m thin, I’m short, I’m tall

I’m deaf, I’m blind, hey, aren’t we all

Above is just part of an award winning 1998 song by singer Mark Wills & songwriter Allen Shamblin written after Shamblin’s elementary age daughter came home crying one day after classmates made fun of her freckles. Wills, also a father of a freckled daughter, and Shamblin wrote the song in hopes of inspiring tolerance and respect. “Everyone at some point in their life has been picked on, made fun of or put down,” says Wills.However, bullying in school these days is hardly limited to simple laughing or merely calling other kids names because they are fat, thing, short, tall, deaf, blind or freckled. The verbal harassment often becomes so pervasive and degrading to the victim that the victim often suffers long-term psychological problems such as depression and post traumatic stress disorder to the point where some feel they are left with no alternative but suicide. Furthermore, bullying often moves beyond just verbal intimidation and harassment into physical violence and assault.

Over the last month or so we have seen several cases of school bullying hit the news because of tragic consequences of bullying run amuck.

Eric Mohat

In early March, William and Janis Mohat of Mentor, Ohio filed a 42 U.S.C. §1983 lawsuit in U.S District Court against the Mentor Public School District’s Board of Education, two school administrators and a teacher after their 17 year-old son Eric committed suicide in March of 2007 after enduring relentless mostly anti-gay taunting. Eric was involved in theater and music and reports show much of the most pervasive of the taunting Eric endured occurred in his math class taught by an athletic coach who largely ignored the bullying directed at Eric. The Mohat’s lawsuit points to a pattern of bullying at the school, which they claim has contributed to other suicides and suicide attempts by students:

The Mohats also claim that bullying was a “significant factor” in the deaths of three other students in Eric Mohat’s class in 2007.

Mentor high school officials confirmed that a girl and two other boys in Eric’s class had killed themselves in 2007.

According to Janet Klee, a counselor at Chrysalis, a suicide survivors support group, who counseled two of the surviving families, the suicides were connected to bullying.

“These kids,” said Klee, “were extremely bright, and [the bullies] thought they were nerds. I say that not in a derogative but in a good sense. These were good kids who were easy targets for bullying.”

Dan Hughes, whose son Brandon was a friend of Eric’s, said he had withdrawn his son from Mentor High School after he was relentlessly bullied. Brandon, now 19 and working, wrote a suicide note, citing the taunts, two weeks after Eric Mohat’s death.

“What it boils down to is the football players, cheerleaders and kids with money have a different set of rules than everybody else,” Hughes told

“It’s not that much out of the ordinary, and the disturbing part is the school is more concerned about sweeping it under the rug than getting to the bottom of what’s going on,” he said.

Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover

However being a football player hardly immunizes a child from being the subject of bullying. On April 6 of this year, 11 year old Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, a 6th grader and football player at the New Leadership Charter School in Springfield, Massachusetts, wrapped an extension cord around his neck and hung himself after enduring weeks of taunting and bullying at the hands of his classmates.

Also in late April, another 11 year old boy subjected to repeated bullying, Jaheem Herrera, hung himself. Jaheem, like so many bullying victims was afraid to disclose the full extent of the bullying to which he was subjected because when he did tell, the ferocity of the bullying increased. In addition to being taunted as being “gay” he was also labeled a snitch.

And at the end of last month, an unnamed 7th grade student and flag football player at Walker Middle School in Hillsborough, Florida was held down by two fellow players while two other players raped and sodomized him with a broomstick and a hockey stick.  The four assailants were all 14 or 15 years old and eighth graders. They are all under arrest facing charges of sexual batter and false imprisonment.

In each case, the parents recognized the signs of bullying or were aware that it was taking place, though were not fully aware of the extent to which the bullying was occurring. In the three suicides above, in each the parents had contacted the schools about the bullying wanting it to stop, but were met with obviously limited success. The last incident, the rape of  7th grader, the school was investigating an altercation involving the five boys subsequent to the rape and became aware of the rape incident in the course of the investigation.

Each of these four incidents have had a common thread: a desire of the perpetrators to re-enforce their manhood by demeaning the masculinity of their victims, asserting the victims to be less manly because they perceive the victim to be gay. In short, much of the worst bullying (but by no means all) is a manifestation of homophobia.

Noted psychologist Dr. Michael Kimmel of SUNY Stony Brook and a leading authority on the psychology of masculinity notes in his latest book, Guyland: Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men That for teenage boys, they’d rather be punched in the face than be called gay.

In the Advocate article on the death of Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, “Hilda Clarice Graham, an expert on bullies and a school safety consultant with International Training Associates, said students often use assumed sexual orientation as a main weapon against one another. ‘It’s the hammer that hurts the most and is the most vulnerable and hurtful thing going,’ she said.”

Harvard psychologist William Pollack, in his book Real Boys: Rescuing our Boys from the Myths of Boyhood, citing anger researcher Jean Baker Miller writes:

Boys are “made to fear not being aggressive … lest they be found wanting, be beaten out by another, or (worst of all) be like a girl. All of these constitute terrible threats to a core part of what is made to be men’s sense of identity-which has been called masculinity.” The phenomenon of which Miller speaks, in my opinion, affects boys in at least two central ways. First, it makes the potential instigator of violence more likely to leap into action. Rather than risk an affront to his honor or blow o his sense of “masculine” self-esteem, the boy defends himself by going on the offensive, by lashing out at others. Second, this same fragility-the trepidation a boy feels about being shamed, about being considered less than a “man” – may lead the victim of other boy’s violence to take the beatings in silence, even to smile and attempt to shrug them off. So if he does not tattle or retaliate, he may instead try to bear the violence quietly, to cover outward signs that he is the victim, that he is too scared to take on the bully. As I’ve learned in my years of counseling men, many adult males would rather die than be shamed. So I suppose it should be little surprise that many boys feel similarly.

The question is how to address these two affects of bullying: the cycle of aggressiveness by the bully to continually prove his masculinity and the cycle of fear and silence in which the victim is stuck in fear of shame too often alleviated by suicide.

In the cases about, I have no problem or qualms about labeling it as hate crimes. The violent assault and harassment above is occurring because of animus on account of sexual orientation, even if it is based merely upon the perceived sexual orientation of the victim. In each case there is no evidence that the victims were infact gay even though they were taunted mercilessly as being gay. Indeed  the mother of Carl Walker-Hoover, Sirdeaner Walker, notes

“It’s not just a gay issue,” Walker said. “It’s bigger. He was 11 years old, and he wasn’t aware of his sexuality. These homophobic people attach derogatory terms to a child who’s 11 years old, who goes to church, school, and the library, and he becomes confused. He thinks, Maybe I’m like this. Maybe I’m not. What do I do?”

Passage of the Hate Crime Protection Act alone isn’t going to address this issue. There are currently two versions of the act in Congress. Both versions of the HCPA require actual physical violence (i.e. “bodily injury”) before hate crime enhancements can come into play and the Senate version. The House version of the act has passed the House and is now before the Senate, sponsored by Sen. Edward Kennedy, explicitly defines “bodily injury” to exclude “solely emotional or psychological harm to the victim.” However, the Senate version does have some which ought be included in whichever chamber’s bill ultimately gets sent to the White House.  First, it would amend the Hate Crime Statistics Act (HCSA) to explicitly require the FBI’s annual uniform crime report of hate crimes to include the categories of gender and gender identity. Second, and most importantly to the subject of bullying, it would also require the tracking of “about crimes committed by, and crimes directed against, juveniles.” Not only would this information have the potential to shock the nation into addressing the matter of school bullying, would arm legislators and members of Congress in how they write the laws to address these matters.

Two other notable bills are pending in Congress. Authored by Linda Sanchez (D-CA39), both try to address the issue of bullying, one banning cyberbullying (HR 1966) and another adding anti-bullying and harassment programs to the Safe and Drug-Free Schools And Communities Act (HR 2262). The first, HR 1966, has some very overly vague and almost certainly unconstitutional language. Adam B had an excellent rundown of the problems with this bill in a story a week and a half ago: Not Every Bad Thing Can Be Made Illegal. Other attempts at addressing school bullying at the state level have met with limited success thanks largely to the efforts of Republicans who apparently are all for anti-gay harassment and violence in our schools (see the Iowa Senate Republicans filibuster of anti-bullying legislation a few years ago, the stonewalling of the Matt’s Safe School Law in the Michigan Senate by Republicans last year and the failed threat of a North Carolina Senate Republican to hold an anti-bullying bill hostage unless the legislature passes a marriage amendment). Answers on how to address this growing problem need to be found. Suicide is currently the third leading cause of death for teens and researchers tell us the rate of suicide among young males has tripled since the 1950’s.

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