The bullying stories are back in the news, for totally valid reasons. This always yanks an emotional chord for me, since I was once one of those public-school kids who was bullied constantly for a wide variety of reasons.
First of all, I was a pudgy, non-athletic boy in sports-mad Texas and, to make it worse, I was a musician who sang in classical choirs (boy soprano, no less). In one case that led to a major school hallway beat down, I was in a local musical. Thus, I was -- do the math -- obviously gay, which was a strange thing to call one of the most girl-obsessed preteens who has ever walked the face of the earth. Nevertheless, a boy who sings classical music, lives in the library, avoids sports and doesn't wear Texas guy garb is gonna pay the price.
Oh, but these weren't the main reasons I was bullied. There was something even worse to those bullies -- I was a preacher's kid. That was the worst offense to the cool guys in my school.
Trust me, I have no idea how odd kids survive today in the age of cellphones and Facebook.
The current wave of bullying stories started with the tragic case of eighth-grader Asher Brown in Texas. Here's the top of the Houston Chronicle report that has been frozen in my folder of guilt for quite some time.
Asher Brown's worn-out tennis shoes still sit in the living room of his Cypress-area home while his student progress report -- filled with straight A's -- rests on the coffee table.
The eighth-grader killed himself last week. He shot himself in the head after enduring what his mother and stepfather say was constant harassment from four other students at Hamilton Middle School in the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District.
Brown, his family said, was "bullied to death" -- picked on for his small size, his religion and because he did not wear designer clothes and shoes. Kids also accused him of being gay, some of them performing mock gay acts on him in his physical education class, his mother and stepfather said. The 13-year-old's parents said they had complained about the bullying to Hamilton Middle School officials during the past 18 months, but claimed their concerns fell on deaf ears.
Believe it or not, that early story never filled in any details about the "religion" reference. However, a new Chronicle story has the information from the parents -- David and Amy Truong -- that readers needed from the get go:
Brown's parents said he was bullied because of his small size, because he was Buddhist and because he didn't wear trendy clothes. Brown also had confided in his parents that he was gay, and his parents said he suffered gay taunts during his physical education class.
So far, I have not been able to find out any hard, factual information about the alleged bullies, other than the grieving parents' claims that school officials were protecting those families. It is clear that Brown was part of a circle of so-called losers of various kinds who were tormented, one would assume, by the winners in that public-school culture.
Now, there are several obvious questions, all of them worthy of investigation. My top two:
(1) What were the circumstances surrounding the anti-Buddhist bullying? When I was taunted as a kid, it was by other kids who simply wanted to attack anyone whose beliefs were strong, and thus, odd. Most of the bullies were the kids behind the gym sneaking cigarettes between classes, not members of other faith groups (not anti-Baptists, in other words).
(2) To be blunt, were the bullies accusing Brown of being a sissy or a sinner? Was there any religious content to these hellish anti-gay taunts?
This is crucial information, one way or another.
Why? Well the following passage in a bullying wrap-up story in the New York Times shows why the questions about religion must be asked and the results openly debated. Yes, we're back to the issue of needing to ask if the violent, drug-driven thugs in that Wyoming bar who bashed Matthew Shepard were, somehow, closeted disciples of Focus on the Family.
In a pair of blog postings last week, Dan Savage, a sex columnist based in Seattle, assigns the blame to negligent teachers and school administrators, bullying classmates and "hate groups that warp some young minds and torment others."
"There are accomplices out there," he wrote Saturday. In an interview, Mr. Savage, who is gay, said he was particularly irate at religious leaders who used "antigay rhetoric."
"The problem is that kids are being exposed to this rhetoric, and then they go to the school and there's this gay kid," he said. "And how are they going to treat this gay kid who they've been told is trying to destroy their family? They're going to abuse him."
Now, before we get pulled off the journalistic issues here, please note that I am actually saying that journalists need to probe the facts of these stories. Journalists need to find out if the bullying trends, right now, are linked to students who are acting on religious motives or acting on other motives. I, for one, suspect that the actions of the Rutgers students accused of broadcasting a sexual encounter between the late Tyler Clementi and another male were more inspired by reality television (think the sludge of "Jersey Shore," if you must) than by religious doctrines.
The bottom line: Were these cyber-punks bar hoppers or members of a dorm Bible study? At Rutgers?
Journalists need to ask the questions to a wide variety of people (and not just to Savage). If there are Bible-toting bullies out there, in public-school hallways and on the WWW, they deserve to be exposed and the details of their actions dissected. That would be responsible journalism. Do the work, folks.