Using a young readers' novel called The Misfits as a centerpiece, middle schools nationwide will participate in a No Name-calling Week initiative starting Monday. The program, now in its second year, has the backing of groups from the Girl Scouts to Amnesty International but has also drawn complaints that it overemphasizes harassment of gay youths.
The initiative was developed by the New York-based Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, which seeks to ensure that schools safely accommodate students of all sexual orientations. GLSEN worked with James Howe, the openly gay author of The Misfits and many other popular children's books. "Gay students aren't the only kids targeted; this isn't about special rights for them," Howe said. "But the fact is that 'faggot' is probably the most common insult at schools."
The Misfits deals with four much-taunted middle schoolers--one of them gay--who run for the student council on a platform advocating an end to nasty name-calling.
GLSEN is unsure how many schools will participate in this week's event but says 5,100 educators from 36 states have registered, up from 4,000 last year. Participation in a related writing-music-art contest rose from 100 students last year to 1,600 this year; the winning poem was written by Sue Anna Yeh, a 13-year-old from Sugar Land, Texas.
No Name-calling Week takes aim at insults of all kinds, whether based on a child's appearance, background, or behavior. But a handful of conservative critics have zeroed in on the references to harassment based on sexual orientation. "I hope schools will realize it's less an exercise in tolerance than a platform for liberal groups to promote their pansexual agenda," said Robert Knight, director of Concerned Women for America's Culture and Family Institute.
In Iowa, complaints by scores of parents about the gay themes in The Misfits prompted the Pleasant Valley School Board to rule that teachers could no longer read it aloud to elementary school classes, although it could remain in school libraries. In Colorado, lawmakers last year rejected a proposal to declare a statewide No Name-calling Week in conjunction with the inaugural GLSEN-backed event. Colorado house majority leader Keith King said he was concerned about fostering a "victim's mentality" and argued that children should be taught to ignore taunts.
In contrast, Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm issued a proclamation recognizing the event, and more than 40 national organizations have enlisted as partners, including the Girl Scouts, the national associations of elementary and secondary school principals, and the National Education Association. "People who would criticize this, regardless of who came out with it, are people with bad hearts," said Jerald Newberry, who directs the NEA's health information network. "This is as vanilla as you get in terms of creating safe environments in schools," Newberry said. "To criticize this program would, almost without exception, be a political attack, not an attack on its content."
James Garbarino, a Cornell University professor who has studied school bullying, said harassment based on sexual orientation "ought to be number 1 on the list" as educators combat name-calling. Such taunting has led to violence and suicides, he said.
Whether programs like No Name-calling Week work depends on whether staff and students heed the lessons yearlong, not just during special events, Garbarino said. "When it's done in a mechanical, mindless way, when it's just for show, kids see the hypocrisy of it," he said.
GLSEN executive director Kevin Jennings agrees that schools should do more than hold a one-week event; he hopes to evaluate systematically whether the initiative indeed reduces name-calling. "Every week should be No Name-calling Week, but having one week at least raises the visibility of the issue," he said.
One of GLSEN's most persistent critics is Warren Throckmorton, director of counseling at Grove City College, a Christian school near Pittsburgh. His skeptical comments about No Name-calling Week have been widely circulated this month on conservative Web sites. "There's no question middle school can be a difficult place; I'm not advocating that any group gets mistreated," Throckmorton said in a telephone interview.
"But it will definitely make traditionally oriented teachers and parents and kids feel very uncomfortable if they happen to object to homosexuality on moral grounds," he said of GLSEN's program. "If you disagree, you're hateful, you're bigoted, you're a homophobe. They're using name-calling to combat name-calling."
Another critic is Brenda High of Pasco, Wash., an antibullying activist since her 13-year-old son committed suicide in 1998 following harassment at school. "The use of The Misfits as a basis for this teaching puts the emphasis on the subgroup of the harassment victim instead of on the perpetrator of harassment--the bully," she said.
But Howe said critics of No Name-calling Week seem reluctant to acknowledge the scope of antigay harassment in schools. "Homosexuality is not a moral issue; it's a fact. And kids who are gay, or maybe just different, need to be allowed to grow up in a safe environment just like everybody else," Howe said. (AP)