By OutFront Minnesota’s Safe Schools Team
With the new school year starting, we want to share with you the stories of Kyrstin Schuette and Jake Ross, two courageous young people who have spoken out about their experiences of being bullied and how it impacted their lives.
Earlier this year, they spoke to members of the Minnesota House and Senate in support of the Safe and Supportive Minnesota Schools Act, a comprehensive anti-bullying bill, introduced in the State Legislature by Senator Scott Dibble and Representative Jim Davnie. The bill provides clear definitions of bullying, harassment, and intimidation as well as enumerated protections for students who are most likely to be bullied or harassed because of their actual or perceived race, color, creed, religion, disability, sex, age, national origin, immigration status, marital status, family status, socioeconomic status, physical appearance, sexual orientation, and gender identity or expression.
Kyrstin Schuette was on a high school choir field trip to Wisconsin when she was first confronted with bullying. Her cell phone was stolen and private pictures of Kyrstin and her girlfriend were passed around the suburban Minnesota school and beyond.
“When I confided this to my teacher, she shifted the blame to me instead of my harassers,” Schuette testified to the Minnesota House and Senate committees earlier this year, in support of the Safe and Supportive Minnesota Schools Act. “Her response was that if I didn’t want people to see my photos, then they shouldn’t be on my phone in the first place. I spent a sleepless night listening to the judgmental whisper of the other choir members talking about me, and the constant buzzing of cell phones sharing the text message. After pushing through a sub-par choir performance, we finally went home. All I could think about was how I would face everyone at school the next day.
“As soon as I walked through the school doors that morning, it was obvious that those messages hadn’t just stayed within the choir group. The looks I got cut like daggers; the not-so subdued whispers were deafening. I walked through the halls suddenly feeling ashamed about who I was. Once in the choir room, my teacher began talking about an ‘incident’ that had occurred on the trip and how ‘drama’ would not be tolerated. I initially felt a spark of hope, though it was quickly extinguished when we sat in a ‘healing circle’ that quickly turned into a homophobic rant from my fellow classmates. While I believe my teacher had the best of intentions, the circle just added more fuel to the fire.”
The bullying continued unabated, and by the time Schuette was a high school senior, the name-calling via texting and social media became too much. She dropped out of school, attempted suicide, and like so many young people in Minnesota had no real protection against youthful hate-speak and crimes – not from her school nor state lawmakers.
As Schuette describes, bullying can take many forms beyond physical altercation. The Safe & Supportive Minnesota Schools Act defines bullying as (among other things) behaviors that inflict intentional emotional distress or substantially interfere with a student’s educational opportunities or performance.
Ten-year-old Forest Lake student Jake Ross knows more than he should about all this. The bullying he experienced started three years ago with teasing and harassment. His mother went to the elementary school administration, only to be met with institutional indifference and skepticism. Jake also testified to the Minnesota House and Senate – in and of itself an act of bravery that goes well beyond the cowardly ken of his pint-sized antagonists, not to mention that of the school officials who chalked up his complaints to an overly sensitive kid and an over-protective mother.
“At a meeting with the school director and assistant administrator, my mom asked, ‘How will you ensure a safe learning environment for our son?’” Jake told the House and Senate members. “The answer given to her by the director was, ‘I can’t help you. I can’t tell you.’ Toward the end of the school year, my mom filled out harassment and violence reporting forms for several of the incidents of harm that happened to me, but the school administration did not investigate them.
“Because this school would not provide a safe learning environment for me, my parents took me and my younger sister out of this school. The following year, my mom and a group of other parents concerned about bullying spoke at a school board meeting of this school. They shared their concern for the lack of clear procedures and consequences for bullying, and they asked this school to provide a ‘code of conduct’ booklet which would clearly explain consequences for bullying. Even after this group of parents asked for bullying prevention procedures to be put in place, the school board and the administration did not want to make any changes to their school’s policies, saying they did not need this at their school.”
In her testimony, Schuette concluded: “This bill is something that will impact every single Minnesota student. As an older sister, this is particularly important to me. I don’t want my siblings to go to school and feel like they aren’t safe and supported as they pursue their education. I want them and every student to be able to go to school and prom and walk with their fellow classmates to get their diplomas. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to have those memories, as I completed high school online.
“We have an opportunity to create social change with this bill. Had something like it been in place while I was going to school, I believe my outcome would have been different. My teachers might have been more educated on how best to intervene and how to appropriately handle perpetual bullying incidents like mine. My mother could have benefitted from available resources that might have helped our struggling relationship.
“Unfortunately, I’ll never know how a bill like this could have helped me, or how many now lost lives it could have saved. But today I ask you to think for a moment about a student you know – your siblings, your own children – and how they might someday be protected by this bill. Let’s work together to make sure that they never have to go through the things that I, and so many others, had to in school.”
Both Kyrstin Schuette and Jake Ross have become advocates for bullying prevention and intervention. Here’s a list of suggestions from Safe Schools Coalition member The Diversity Council in Rochester about what students and adults can do to help stop bullying.
What Can YOU Do About Bullying?
- First of all, don’t be a bully yourself!
- Don’t encourage others who are bullying by laughing or egging them on.
- Don’t protect the bully.
- Don’t stay silent. Use your power to speak up!
- If you feel it’s not safe for you to try to stop the bullying, find an adult you trust to intervene.
- Support the victim. Encourage them, walk down the hallways beside them, sit with them at lunch.
- Support others who have the courage to speak up against bullying. There is strength in numbers.
- Respect yourself and respect others.
- Appreciate others for their differences.
- Create a culture of friendship and inclusion.
- Make it clear that bullying is not cool.
- Be part of the solution, not the problem!
- Take the Diversity Council’s pledge to do your part to end bullying at: http://www.diversitycouncil.org/PDF_files/AntiBullyingPledge.pdf
For more tips on bulling prevention and intervention, visit www.diversitycouncil.org.
The Safe Schools for All Coalition (a group of more than 90 education, disability, youth, religious, LGBT and social service organizations, as well as individual citizens) and OutFront Minnesota are working to pass anti-bullying legislation and they need your help. To get involved, email Safe Schools Coalition Organizer Katrina Plotz: firstname.lastname@example.org and sign up here to receive the latest news and updates from OutFront: https://outfront.wufoo.com/forms/z7x0k1/
Find more information about bullying prevention and safe schools legislation on OutFront Minnesota’s web site: www.outfront.org
Other anti-bullying resources for students, parents and teachers:
Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network
GLSEN strives to assure that each member of every school community is valued and respected regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity/expression.
Parent Advocacy Coalition for Education Rights (PACER) Center
PACER is organization dedicated to expanding the opportunities for children and young adults with disabilities, and their families. The organization also runs the National Center for Bullying Center.
Stop Bullying Now
This youth-oriented federal government campaign features a tip sheet for “Bullying Among Children and Youth on Perceptions and Differences in Sexual Orientation.”
The Trevor Project
The Trevor Project is the leading national organization providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning youth.