Progress in the fight against bullying

Laws passed by Texas Legislature this session aren’t perfect, but they are progress in the battle

PHYLLIS GUEST | Contributing Columnist

Last month, clinical psychologist Mark Hatzenbuehler of Columbia University published a study in the journal Pediatrics entitled “The social environment and suicide attempts in lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth.” The article uses information on 32,000 high school juniors in Oregon.

Why Oregon? Because it is the only state reporting to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control the three-part data set Hatzenbuehler chose to consider: sexual orientation, self-reported suicide attempts and personal contacts by county health professionals.

Maybe the findings are predictable to mental health professionals who work with teens on a day-to-day basis. But to me and to others with whom I’ve spoken, they are startling.

Taking the proportion of voting Democrats as a proxy for a liberal county environment, Hatzenbuehler found that LGBT teens living in politically conservative locales are significantly more depressed and suicidal than teens living in politically progressive areas.

Even straight kids in conservative areas — areas in which no programs supporting gay rights exist — are more likely to report depression or to say they’ve attempted suicide.

What are the numbers? In the most conservative Oregon counties, some 25 percent of LGBT teens have attempted suicide, and 9 percent of straight teens have made similar attempts.

In the liberal counties, 20 percent of LGBT teens have tried to kill themselves, and 4 percent of straight teens have done so.

Hatzenbuehler has published a number of studies on the mental health of LGBs, and in this case he is considering how “structural forms of discrimination affect socially disadvantaged groups” — structural meaning, in this case, the ways in which conservative communities refuse to accept LGBs.

His findings coincide with those of other researchers, who have reported that — along with strong family ties — caring teachers and safe schools can sharply reduce teens’ suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts.

In a brief phone interview, Hatzenbuehler said he hopes community groups and, in particular, school districts, will use his research as a “road map for how we can reduce suicide ideation and suicide attempts by creating a safe, supportive school environment.”

Hatzenbuehler points out that last summer, the New York Senate passed the Dignity for All Students Act (only three of 61 legislators voted no).

Signed into law by then-Gov. David Patterson on Sept. 8, 2010, the act “prohibits harassment against students based on, among other attributes, “sexual orientation, gender (including gender identity and expression) and sex…and further prohibits discrimination based on these characteristics.”

The law applies to all New York State public schools.

Now back to Texas, which despite a supermajority of Republicans in the Legislature, is making progress against school bullying and for teen suicide prevention — though not specifically against the bullying or suicide attempts of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transsexual students.

The Legislature in May passed two bills backed by Equality Texas. The first is an anti-bullying bill originally named in honor of Asher Brown, the gay 13-year-old who committed suicide after being bullied at his school. The second instructs the Department of State Health Services to “develop resources designed to prevent teen suicide, including mental health counseling, crisis prevention tools and suicide prevention education.”

So here’s the takeaway: How protective the new Texas laws will be for LGBT youth remains to be seen. For one thing, unlike in New York, schools in Texas would have “the option of implementing the programs” developed because of the new law and thus could very well opt out.

For another, on that same bill, the Senate Education committee added some provisions, including one that prohibits a student from seeking counseling without a parent’s knowledge.

So these pieces of legislation are not perfect. But they are progress.

As of June 1, Gov. Rick Perry had not signed either anti-bullying bill into law. But there is hope in Texas that we are finally doing something to keep our children safe — or at least safer — from bullying and its all-too-often deadly consequences.

Phyllis Guest is a longtime activist and member of Stonewall Democrats of Dallas. Contact her via editor@dallasvoice.com.

—  John Wright