The recent spate of teen suicides has brought a swift, and mostly positive, reaction from Americans. The spontaneous creation of “it gets better” videos has shown that even in an ugly political climate, there is an enormous reserve of compassion. There has been a nearly universal condemnation of bullying in our nation’s schools.
But it hasn’t taken long for both sides of the political battle over gay rights to co-opt this issue. At the insistence of gay rights advocacy groups, school boards in more liberal communities across the country have incorporated messages of tolerance into their curricula. These messages are specific: tolerance of families with two daddies or two mommies, acceptance of love between two boys or two girls. These messages are being pitched to students as young as those in elementary school. Needless to say, social conservatives are outraged. They see a “hidden” agenda. They believe that gay rights advocates are exploiting the bullying crisis to promote acceptance of homosexuality.
As in all complex and deeply emotional issues, neither side is completely right. The need for a swift and vigorous response is obvious. Shaping that response is tricky. But we’ve been down this road before. Not long ago the battle lines were drawn over hate crimes legislation. In an effort to combat violence against those who are perceived to be gay, laws were passed that go beyond punishing behavior involved in a criminal act. These laws attempt to punish perpetrators for the motivation behind the act.
Isn’t it enough to have strong sanctions against violent acts without attempting to ascribe motivation? The answer is yes, if those laws are enforced equally for all persons without regard to classification. The problem is not a lack of legislation, the problem is a lack of enforcement. The solution is a zero tolerance policy for violence of any kind, in any situation, against any person. That policy must come from and be vigorously enforced by the people in charge – the mayors, the police department chiefs, the school board administrators, and everyone who reports to them.
As it turns out, all of the people who can implement and enforce such a zero tolerance policy serve as elected officials or work at the discretion of elected officials. Therefore the ultimate responsibility lies with us, the people who vote for school board members and politicians. We must demand a zero tolerance policy towards violence and we must remove those who do not work forcefully to implement it.
Each of us must exercise our individual responsibility to create a climate in which violence is unacceptable. Parents, in particular, must teach their children from the earliest age that bullying will never be acceptable behavior. If we work together, we can make a difference. We should fight our ideological battles in some other arena.