The untimely death of 14-year-old Kenneth Weishuhn is a tragic reminder of how far we have yet to go to guarantee that all students and citizens feel welcomed and accepted for who they are.
It is no surprise that verbal abuse is the most commonly used form of bullying and harassment among youth and often manifests itself in the form of homophobic comments and slurs, and language that degrades and marginalizes women and girls. The intent of these words used by perpetrators is simple and clear: you are flawed - you are not worthy of respect, you don't matter.
In the fall of 2007, anti-harassment and anti-bullying policies in schools were rewritten to include sexual orientation and gender identity as additional traits and characteristics protected under the law (Iowa Code chapter 216). Unfortunately, this law was not passed unanimously by our elected officials, even though according to national statistics, over half of teenagers in schools hear derogatory words about sexual orientation every day (American Psychological Association) and of students between the ages of 13 and 18, one-third report that students in their school are frequently harassed because of their perceived or actual sexual orientation.
So, how far have we come as a society, as parents, neighbors and educators charged with the responsibility of promoting the social, emotional and academic learning of all youth within our care? How do we reduce the incidents of bullying and all forms of gender violence? The answer lies - with all of us.
The social norms that accept violence and bullying as a part of life robs all of us - individuals, families and entire communities - from experiencing our highest potential. The sheer volume of language and actions that objectify, marginalize, degrade and demean is overwhelming to those who identify as LGBTQ or who are considered and viewed as "less-masculine." These norms are not driven and sustained by our DNA, they are learned and allowed to flourish on our streets, in our homes, and in our communities because the majority of us - me and you - permit it to be so.
When those of us in positions of leadership and influence, be they personal or professional, choose to model and demonstrate intolerance to harassment and abuse, others follow - norms change. In fact, the majority of us maintain pretty strong feelings that violence and abuse of any kind is wrong and unacceptable, yet the majority of us often choose to say nothing or speak out against statements or rhetoric that resembles sexism, racism, homophobia or heterosexism for fear of rejection or becoming the target of unwanted slurs and rejection ourselves.
Ironically, we expect our kids to be respectful of others in spite of the vile and demeaning slang strewn throughout our politics and among our "civilized" national discourse. How is it "pro family" to mouth anti-gay rhetoric within earshot of our LGBTQ children, their parents, or, for that matter, any children? If we want to significantly reduce the incidents of both bullying and gender violence, we need to have a massive crackdown on homophobic and misogynistic language and comments, and we need it now.
The good news is that the adoption and implementation of intentional and strategic interventions to reduce and restrict the presence of bullying, violence and abuse can and does make a difference. Results of a recent four-year study of thousands of middle and high school students in Sioux City, conducted in partnership with the Waitt Institute for Violence Prevention, showed positive trends in students' perceptions and beliefs that behaviors such as arguing in a violent way, pushing or shoving, making derogatory comments to gay and lesbian students, listening to music lyrics that degrade women, and spreading rumors or gossiping are wrong. Moreover, these same favorable trends occurred in the students' perceptions of their own ability to intervene and the perceptions that "other" peers would intervene as active bystanders if confronted with these verbally abusive and derogatory behaviors. While this is good news, it is only a start - we are certainly not there yet.
Culture and social norm change within organizations and institutions can take up to six or 10 years to become fully realized and absolutely requires constant attention to the process and the inclusion and engagement of youth and adults alike. Leadership and commitment must be nurtured and sustained - even in the face of setbacks and failure. Communities, by and large, possess this same capacity to reduce and eliminate bullying, violence and abuse.
Pro social actions and positive change can come from tragedy. We've seen the recent outpouring of support for the family of Kenneth Weishuhn and read that t-shirts are appearing with homemade anti -bullying slogans, friends are wearing pink clothes, or coloring their hair pink in solidarity. These are beautiful gestures and signify the pulling together of a community that wants the violence and abuse to stop. Those types of gestures and the showing of support for the bullied and victimized can continue, and should ... every day and in every community across the country.
When tragedy stems from abuse that occurs in our own back yard, our own neighborhood, or hometown - will we point fingers and allow hatred and prejudices to seep in and corrode our sense of humanity, or will we muster the courage within to examine our hearts and minds and reflect on what we could have said or have done differently that might have changed or influenced the outcome?
And finally, when the abusive and brutal attacks endured by one of our own is captured on film and powerfully crafted to bring an entire nation to its knees in redemption, will our final analysis be that of a failure, or achievement? We chose the latter.
Cindy Waitt is president of the Waitt Institute for Violence Prevention in North Sioux City, S.D. Alan Heisterkamp is an education consultant with the Waitt Institute for Violence Prevention.