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(c) by Mary Griggs

Tragic news came out of the Lake Charles area with the report that bullying may be a contributing factor to teenager Hannah Pauley’s recent suicide. Her father, Len Pauley, stated: “Honestly I don’t believe I would want any child to be charged with anything…If those kids can just step up to the plate and admit that they were wrong, make a positive out of this–then absolutely not–because they have to live with this for the rest of their lives now.”

Stopping bullying from happening and appropriately responding to it when it happens is critical to the academic success and overall safety of our students. It is up to all of us — the students, the teachers, the administrators, concerned citizens, the school board and our state legislators — to do all we can to promote the health, safety and overall well being of our young people. We must create school climates that welcomes, accepts and supports all people for who they are, no matter what.

Many who are bullied are targeted because of their perceived sexual orientation or because they do not conform to someone’s expectations about gender. Too often, when such children are bullied in school, officials fail to protect them. While not every person who has been bullied thinks about or attempts suicide, persistent bullying can lead to or worsen feelings of isolation, rejection, exclusion and despair, as well as to depression and anxiety, which can contribute to suicidal behavior.

Help is available. There are national suicide prevention lines like the Trevor Project (866-488-7386). Families can get support in becoming more accepting through local PFLAG chapters. Currently, there are Louisiana chapters in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Shreveport and Lafayette. There are also locally made videos on It Gets Better where young people can see that they are not alone and that supportive adults are out there.

Would you like a good way to teach someone about the devastating impact of bullying? A teacher in the New York area has come up with a good way to teach about the harmful effects of bullying to her class. She had the children take a clean piece of paper and told them to crumple it up, stomp on it, mess it up, just don’t rip it. Then she had them unfold the paper, smooth it out and look at how marred and dirty it now was. She then told them to tell it they’re sorry.

Even though they said they were sorry and tried to fix the paper, there were many marks that were left behind. She told them that is what happens when a child bullies another child. They may say they’re sorry but the scars are there forever.

Bullying prevention is our responsibility! We can change people’s hearts and minds by sharing our stories of how bullying hurts. More than that, we need to address institutions and laws. While Louisiana’s existing statutes require school districts to enact and implement policies to protect students from bullying, it does not comprehensively address the issue. In study after study, it has been found that students at schools with a comprehensive anti-bullying policies report bullying and harassment at a significantly reduced rate.

Together, we can ensure that no other family or community has to suffer a loss like this. The Forum For Equality and a coalition of educators, disability rights and LGBT equality organizations will be proposing Safe Schools legislation in the upcoming 2012 session.