We’re Failing to Protect Marginalized Kids in Schools. Here’s Why.

Two days ago, a video of a high school student punching another student for calling him a f***** went viral on Twitter. (A more complete version of the incident is available here. CW for a non-Black youth using AAVE in a negatively stereotyping way.**)

Screenshot of the crucial moment.

The video dramatically captured a moment that is all-too-common for LGBTQ+ kids in K–12 schools: bullying motivated by homophobia and/or transphobia. According to a Human Rights Campaign (HRC) survey, LGBTQ+ youth are twice as likely to have experienced a physical assault than their peers. This statistic excludes other types of harassment, such as being the target of slurs based on sexuality or gender identity. The survey was conducted in 2012, but anyone in the LGBTQ+ community will confirm that such bullying has been happening in schools for as long as our collective memory extends back.

By any measure, harassment like this is happening far too often in schools. But I’m going to focus on what happens afterwards: how schools respond to incidents like this one, where a student occupying a place of privilege — in this case, heterosexuality — uses a slur against a student with a marginalized identity.

In the video, the bully calls the gay kid “f*****” multiple times while also advancing on him, getting directly into his face. The gay kid starts with a shove to get the bully out of his space, but when the bully advances again, unfazed by the shove, the gay kid throws a punch. In the comments of the video, the gay kid wrote that they were suspended for a longer period than the instigator, because according to school policy, a punch is considered worse than a word.

“Suspended me, and the other kid me longer of course due to the fighting”
“Suspended me, and the other kid me longer of course due to the fighting”
The student in the video reported that they had been suspended for longer than the other student involved. Because the student is a minor and may change their mind in the future about identifying themselves in the video, I am concealing their identity. Since they do not say which pronouns they use, I am using neutral they/them pronouns for the student that was harassed.

But what is the gay kid supposed to do in this situation? Call the straight kid…what? Hetero? There’s no equivalent verbal attack someone with a marginalized identity can hurl at someone with a privileged identity. These kids are not on equal ground, and it only benefits the instigator to pretend that they are.

The bully persists until the marginalized kid runs out of options. Ultimately, it seems that only physical retaliation will make it stop. And the kid is usually right — they can’t retaliate with parallel emotional pain; only physical pain matches the hurt that has been inflicted.

Oftentimes, violence is the only response that proves effective.

“I…was just looking for an apology but…that has been that has been the word to define me since 2nd grade”
“I…was just looking for an apology but…that has been that has been the word to define me since 2nd grade”
The student reveals that this exact type of harassment had plagued them for years.

This happens too often: privileged kids try to bully marginalized kids using slurs or other hate-motivated language. This particular case grew out of homophobia, but the pattern holds true for all types of prejudiced harassment and assault. For example, many Latina/o/x kids have been taunted with statements like “Build the wall” or “Go back to Mexico” since the election of Donald Trump to the Presidency in 2016. In fact, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) found that hate-motivated language and violence became even more widespread in American schools during this time. The investigation found tens of incidents of racism, homo- and transphobia, xenophobia, Islamophobia, antisemitism, and misogyny, amounting to a total of 867 hate incidents, all in the first ten days after the election.

Schools need to have specific hate speech policies that place slurs and prejudicial language against others’ identities on the same level as physical violence. Kids need to learn at school that hateful language has serious consequences. It doesn’t just teach kids in privileged positions that hate won’t be tolerated. It also affirms to marginalized kids that it’s not just a personal wrong, it’s a societal and community wrong.

If schools have anti-hate speech policies, it teaches marginalized kids that their school will back them up against unfair bias. And perhaps if anti-hate speech is a norm in schools, bystander kids will also speak out against bullies using slurs.

The status quo is harmful to marginalized kids because:

  • they must cope regularly with the stresses of micro- and macroaggressions, factors we know are detrimental to human health
  • they feel alone and unsupported when faced with prejudice
  • they are already disadvantaged through marginalization, and suspensions for self-defense put them further behind.

“But violence is never the answer. There must be another way.”

In the “real world,” trans women are being murdered at an epidemic rate, and African American trans women are most at risk. Gay-bashing still happens. White supremacists target Muslims, African Americans, Latinas/os/x, and Jewish people in mass shootings. Indigenous women are raped and murdered at rates far disproportionate to their numbers.

How else can kids answer when violence is so often the question?

Unless schools make a concerted effort to purge their classrooms and campuses of targeted, bias-based harassment, school children and youth who are marginalized will need to defend themselves physically. Much bullying happens out of adults’ sight. Bathrooms are the most common location, which is why trans kids’ bathroom rights are vital for their safety. Unfortunately, even adult supervision is no guarantee of safety.

Ideally, American students would receive education in implicit bias, de-escalation techniques, and restorative justice in schools in addition to reading, science, and math. But absent a fundamental, structural change to root out prejudice in students, teachers, and staff and offer effective, alternative tools to manage threats, marginalized students will need to practice self-defense.

Adults need to recognize that children are not living in a world somehow free of prejudice. This is the world we made; we can’t blame our kids for just trying to survive in it. When a kid has to use a fist to stop harassment, the failure doesn’t belong to the kid. It belongs to all of us.

** A note on the use of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) by the gay kid in the video: The use of AAVE by a non-Black youth is problematic and can be considered a racist act. As always, being a member of a marginalized group does not excuse an individual when enacting other forms of prejudice. I note that the gay student uses it in a highly performative way, possibly indicating their need to somehow occupy an alternative identity in order to commit to a physical act of self-defense. Nevertheless, watching a non-Black kid use AAVE to impersonate a stereotypical “Black thug” may be a painful experience for African Americans, and it reinforces harmful, racist tropes. Finally, the LGBTQ+ community has a history of appropriation of African American culture by non-Black folks, which puts an extra twist on this situation. American students should learn about intersectionality, too.

FURTHER READING for thought and discussion

The Urgency of Addressing the Rise of Racist Hate Speech in K–12 Schools from Facing South

Fighting Hate in Schools from National Public Radio

Hate in Schools from Education Week

Free Speech vs. Hate Speech from Psychology Today

How to Confront Hate Speech at School from the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education

Writer, activist, inclusion and equity consultant. Parenting, immigration, LGBTQ+, racial justice. Patreon.com/jorjorian. Pub list: www.anooshjorjorian.com.

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