Districts can't afford to ignore last year's spate of suicides among gay teens.
LOS ANGELES - A history teacher amends his lessons on the civil rights movement to include the push for gay equality. A high school removes Internet filters blocking gay advocacy websites. Six gay students in Anoka sue their district, saying officials failed to protect them from bullies.
After anti-gay bullying led to a spate of teen suicides last year, school districts across the country are stepping up efforts to prevent such incidents, while more students are coming forward to report bullies.
"It's an issue that has taken over the public consciousness since last fall," said Jill Marcellus, spokeswoman for the Gay-Straight Alliance Network. "People realize it doesn't have to be this way. We can make it better."
Awareness of anti-gay bullying is increasing as acceptance of gay people grows in society.
Kids, even as young as middle-school age, feel more emboldened to openly express their sexual or gender orientation, but many are not prepared for a possible backlash, gay-rights advocates say.
According to a 2009 survey by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, 85 percent of gay teens reported harassment at school within the previous year, and two-thirds felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation. The problem also extends to boys perceived as effeminate and girls deemed masculine.
"A lot of people have the idea that coming out as soon as possible will make themselves feel more comfortable," said Raymond Ferronato, a 16-year-old gay junior in Antioch, Calif. "I tell them come out when you're ready to come out, and only do it when you're safe."
Schools became aware last year of how unsafe it can be.
Five gay teens, ranging from middle school to college age, killed themselves in California, Indiana, Minnesota, Texas and New Jersey, after being bullied, in some cases for years. Last month, 14-year-old Jamey Rodemeyer killed himself in Buffalo, N.Y., after years of homophobic harassment.
In one case, the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education found the Tehachapi Unified School District in California violated the civil rights of Seth Walsh, 13, who hanged himself after relentless taunting and fruitless complaints to school officials. The district agreed in a July settlement to train staff and students how to prevent bullying, organize community meetings and form an advisory committee, among other steps.
School districts across the country are now training teachers and students in techniques to stop bullying.
For example, instead of a teacher simply telling kids to quit using a disrespectful name, stopping taunts is more effective when the teacher explains why teasing hurts and gets bullies to recall instances when they were taunted or acknowledge that they would feel hurt if they were, experts said.
"It's about making them realize what it's like," said Travis Brown, an anti-bullying speaker now on a 200-school tour.
Despite growing awareness, there's a long way to go.
Six gay students sued the Anoka-Hennepin School District in recent months over its "neutrality" policy on anti-gay bullying, saying the policy effectively licenses bullies.
James Gilliam, ACLU director, said he's encouraged, however, that more students are stepping forward to make complaints. "Students not reporting bullying is the No.1 issue," he said. "We know they're being bullied."