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Utahn fights back against gay bullying

SPRINGVILLE — As 75-year-old Leonard Ridley leaned over to switch out one of the signs hanging outside his house last week, a young girl yelled out over the fence: "Don't put it up."

Ridley's messages supporting gays are visible from the playground of Art City Elementary School, which has caused controversy among children and adults in his neighborhood and the Nebo School District.

"Stop Gay Suicide," the signs say. "Tell the Truth. Gays are Born Gay."

Ridley says he's trying to start a conversation with the community on the national problem of bullying gay students. After news stations and papers reported on the string of gay suicides outside Utah this fall, some allegedly due to bullying, Ridley put up his signs.

"There are hundreds of children that go to school there, and the children can carry the message back to the adults in their lives and get a conversation going," said Ridley, who was a social worker for 33 years before retiring. "This type of teasing starts in the fourth, fifth and sixth grades."

Teachers in Utah and around the nation should do a better job of policing gay bullying, say gays and some educators. Some school districts, including the Salt Lake School District, have passed, or are considering, specific policies against discrimination against gay students.

Ridley was disturbed when his step-great-granddaughter, a fifth-grader at the school, told him about a game the students play at recess called "smear the queer," where everyone tackles the person with the ball.

Parents of students there, including Jason Averett, the father of a first-grader, said kids have been playing the game all over the country for ages — Averett played it himself when he was a student — and said children make no associations between the word "queer" and homosexuals. "It was just the name of the game," Averett said.

Yet, Eliza Byard, executive director of GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network) said some students use terms like "queer" and other words deemed slurs by homosexuals as "weapons of choice for ways to demean their peers.

"I think there are many messages given to young people about what kinds of language are acceptable and there's an extent that anti-LGBT language is not recognized for the force and power and impact it has on LGBT people's lives," Byard said.

Byard's network sponsors the National School Climate Survey, which found in 2009 that nearly nine out of 10 lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender students say they have been bullied at school because of their sexual orientation. Nearly one in five LGBT students say they have been physically assaulted at school because of it.

Despite complaints from parents, the school and the school district, Ridley plans to keep his signs up as long as the city will allow — switching his signs is one way he stays in compliance.

"It's only some adults and some children who see the signs, but at least it is something I can do," Ridley said. "I think as the issue continues to be provocative in the community and hopefully spreads to other communities, it will cause similar happenings elsewhere."

The National Climate Survey by the gay education network said teachers do not deal with this kind of language and anti-gay bullying appropriately — less than a fifth of students reported that school personnel frequently intervened when hearing homophobic or negative remarks about gender expression.

"There is a fear that responding is equated with somehow promoting homosexuality," Byard said.

Teachers in Utah are sometimes afraid to address the issue because state law says school personnel cannot promote or endorse homosexuality. But this does not mean that teachers cannot address the issue of gay bullying, said Carol Lear, director of school law for the Utah State Board of Education.

Lear said teachers and administrators are obligated to stop any type of bullying in schools.

"If it is teasing, hazing or bullying behavior, you discipline the student," Lear said. "Bullying is not OK and you discipline appropriately."

Earlier this month the Salt Lake City School Board took a stand on anti-gay bullying. The board voted 5-2 in favor of including lesbian, gay and transgender in their anti-bullying policy and their anti-discrimination policy — possibly the first district in the state to do so. Davis, Granite and Alpine all address bullying in their policies and pointed to different parts of their policies in which gay bullying would be addressed, but don't specifically name this kind of bullying.

Dixie High School students plan to bring it up in the next Washington County School board meeting, said Bethany Coyle, president of the Gay Straight Alliance at her school. She said having a GSA club has helped students at her school feel safer and also made teachers more aware of gay bullying. And addressing the issue specifically in the district policy, she feels, would further this cause.

Nationally, less than a fifth of schools address sexual orientation specifically in their policies.

Some groups feel putting these phrases in policy pushes a homosexual agenda and feel there is no reason to specifically single out certain kinds of people in school policies. For instance, in the 21/2-hour Salt Lake School District debate on the issue, someone said it is like singling out redheads or Catholics or any other type of person. But Doug Nelson, a Salt Lake board member of eight years, said he believes this type of bullying is more prevalent and needs to be addressed. He said it helps teachers, who are sometimes uncomfortable with the issue, address the situation better.

"This is a message from the people in charge of the school system that we really want you to make sure at the school level that students are not bullied because they are, or are perceived to be, gay or lesbian or transgender," Nelson said.

Students whose school policies specifically addressed gender identity and sexual orientation "heard fewer homophobic remarks, experienced lower levels of victimization related to their sexual orientation, were more likely to report that staff intervened when hearing homophobic remarks and were more likely to report incidents of harassment and assault to school staff than students at schools with a general policy or no policy," according to the National Climate Survey last year.

Lear, though, said she believes there could be a better approach.

She said the phrase in the actual policy does not matter as much as training teachers on how to address gay bullying.

"Teach them the best words and best strategies to use and not to be fearful about protecting children," she said.