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Day of Silence gives voice to bullied

Fifteen-year-old Brandon Jackson took a brief vow of silence to call attention to others’ obnoxious loud mouths.

The Lewis Palmer High School sophomore is gay, and while he says he doesn’t fear for his physical safety at school, he and other lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students still confront name-calling, bullying and harassment.

“We want to illustrate the silencing effects that homophobia has not just on gay teens but on all those who are perceived to be part of the LGBT community,” said Jackson, who recruited a number of his friends to join him in the national Day of Silence, an event sponsored by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), a national organization focused on ensuring safe schools.

Around the country, students vowed not to speak on Friday to call attention to persistent anti-gay bullying. Some placed red tape across their mouths to help ensure their silence and bear witness to their vows. Others simply chose to avoid speaking whenever possible, writing down answers when called on in class and passing out pre-printed cards explaining their silence.

Across Colorado, students at about 60 schools – mostly those schools that sponsor Gay-Straight Alliance clubs – indicated they would participate in the Day of Silence. The number that really did participate is anyone’s guess, since their actions were silent and easily overlooked. In fact, several school principals said they were unaware that any students in their schools were even taking part in the national action.

Tracy Phariss, a math teacher at Golden High School and sponsor of that school’s Gay-Straight Alliance, said he wasn’t surprised the silent protest passed without much notice in some schools.

“The number of students participating has gone down because students feel safer than they ever have,” he said. “At my own school, our GSA is smaller than it used to be because students feel really safe here.”

Phariss couldn’t estimate how many Golden students kept silence, but he witnessed at least one student writing responses on a board during class and he saw dozens of students wearing “Day of Silence” stickers. He also saw fellow teachers wearing “I am an Ally” buttons.

“I think it does make a difference,” he said of the Day of Silence symbolic actions. “Seeing teachers and other students wearing ‘ally’ or ‘silence’ buttons helps people to recognize that schools are safe places. It gives students the opportunity to understand their teachers and fellow students are OK. They’re safe.”

Not every school supportive of day’s action

At Bear Creek High School, student Shelby Row tapped out an email acknowledging that while participation was limited, it had been a good day.

“I only heard one person say a negative thing about it,” Shelby wrote. “When I showed my teachers my button and speech card, none of them had a problem, and some were actually happy to see me doing it.

“There was a student in my second period class who didn’t know what today was about and when he read the card he seemed to understand and, luckily, didn’t harass me for doing it. Then in fifth period, a girl said that she wished I could talk because she wanted to talk about it, and sounded rather excited.”

In at least one metro-area school – Gateway High School in Aurora – students who wanted to maintain silence during the day were directed to a school counselor to get printed cards they could hand out to explain what they were doing. The official stamp of school approval makes it easier for students to participate, sponsors said.

But not every school is supportive of such actions. Shea Dietz, a senior at Regis Jesuit High School, said his school would not honor his request to sponsor the Day of Silence. But since his school wasn’t in session on Friday, it was a moot issue. He planned to stage his own individual silence elsewhere.

“I’m participating in the national Day of Silence. I just won’t be in school,” he said on Thursday. “I’ll go about my normal life, just without talking. I may need to send text messages.”

Dietz, who remained closeted until a few months ago, said this year has been difficult for him at school, but he steadfastly has refused to transfer to a more gay-friendly school because he values the education he’s getting at Regis.

“They do promote love and speaking out for what you believe,” he said. “Unfortunately, what I’m speaking out for is something the school is indifferent to. Since it’s a Catholic school, it’s difficult to get anything done. But it’s something I’ll continue to fight for.”

Research shows anti-gay bullying is common

Nationwide, more than 20,000 students registered to participate in the Day of Silence. This year marks the 15th anniversary of the first Day of Silence, held at the University of Virginia in 1996. Last year, students from more than 7,500 middle and high schools – about 10 percent of schools nationwide – took part.

Research shows that anti-LGBT bullying is common in schools, with nearly 85 percent of lesbian, gay or transgendered young people reporting some sort of harassment at school within the past year. One recent school climate survey conducted by GLSEN found that nearly a third of the 7,000 LBGT students who responded had missed school in the last month because they felt unsafe or uncomfortable.“The reality is these youth go to school every single day facing fear,” said Brad Clark, executive director of One Colorado, a non-profit organization that advocates on behalf of LGBT causes. “They face really hostile climates every single day.”

A bill introduced earlier this year in the Colorado legislature, House Bill 1254, seeks to address bullying in schools and to fund anti-bullying programs. The bill passed the House with broad bipartisan support and will be heard next week in the Senate Education Committee.

“In the big picture of things, this issue is critical,” Clark said. “It emerged last fall in the midst of a number of teen suicides all across the country related to repeated bullying incidents. One Colorado approached the Colorado Association of Schools Boards, the Colorado Association of School Executives and the Colorado Education Association to start a conversation about how to address this massive issue.”

If it passes, the legislation would clearly define bullying, would charge every school district with setting in place anti-bullying policies and would set up a program within the state Department of Education to administer grants for best practices and anti-bullying strategies.

Martha Langmuir, director of community initiatives for GLSEN, said real progress toward ending bullying begins with simple conversations.

“That’s the biggest thing that comes out of events like Day of Silence,” she said. “For teens, it’s a big thing to be silent. And when they are, that starts a conversation that hopefully can move toward making school a safer place for all students. That’s the biggest change we’ve seen over the years.”

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