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School of Hard Knocks

Hostile Hallways
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Familiar Refrain

"I was harassed in junior high and high school -- even before junior high, but junior high was when it became most intense," says Grace Sterling Stowell, executive director of the Boston Alliance of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Youth (BAGLY), who served on the Massachusetts governor's commission. Her experience as a teen in the mid 1970s, she tells WebMD, included "verbal harassment, threats, being pushed around the hallway, tripped, having books kicked out of my hands, threats written on my locker."

In her 21 years with BAGLY, first as a volunteer and most recently as director, Sterling Stowell says she has heard similar stories repeated by the teens who seek the organization's support. Many students, like Dylan N., also report indifference -- or worse -- on the part of school authorities, a finding that Human Rights Watch staffers found particularly troubling.

"I would argue that any school system that allows one group of kids to be picked on sends a message to all kids that it's OK to judge and pick on [others]," says Widney Brown, co-author of Hatred in the Hallways.

Brown and colleagues found that taunts, threats, and physical abuse from their peers were only half the battle for kids who are considered to be different.

"In interviews, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth explained how teachers and administrators turned their backs, refusing to take reports of harassment, refusing to condemn the harassment, and failing to hold accountable students who harass and abuse," they write. "Some school officials blame the students being abused of provoking the attacks because they 'flaunt' their identity. Other school officials justify their inaction by arguing that students who 'insist' on being gay must 'get used to it.' And finally, some school officials encourage or participate in the abuse by publicly taunting or condemning the students for not being 'normal.'"

As the human rights champion Edmund Burke wrote in 1795, "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."

Who's to Blame?

Critics of studies such as the ones cited above, while agreeing that LGBT teens are subject to harassment and abuse, imply that the kids' own behavior and "lifestyle choices" are to blame.

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