How many children have to die before our state takes anti-gay bullying seriously?

Late last month, the parents of a teen from Chatsworth, Ga., filed a federal lawsuit over the death of their son, Tyler Lee Long.

An honor student at Murray County High School, Long committed suicide in October after facing what his parents describe as relentless bullying, including being called “gay.”

The case was heartbreakingly similar to the death of Jaheem Herrera, a DeKalb County fifth grader who hung himself last April. Herrera’s family said he faced ongoing bullying, including anti-gay taunts, although a school system investigation concluded the child was not bullied. Students who called him “gay” claimed they thought the word just meant “happy.”

These two deaths, in different areas of the state and in a span of less than 12 months, prove that a piecemeal approach to bullying, especially anti-gay bullying, won’t work.

In DeKalb, schools put up posters against bullying in the wake of the Jaheem Herrera case. But the posters, at least the ones posted in elementary schools, are written in language that would be virtually meaningless to young people — if they read them at all.

Labeled “Eye on Responsibility,” the poster states: “Bullying, verbal threats and any form of harassment are against school rules and should be reported. Based on state law, three bullying violations may result in expulsion.”

Not exactly engaging, is it?

Far better would be a series of signs akin to the excellent posters produced by the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network and distributed by the Ad Council as part of the “ThinkB4YouSpeak” campaign.

One such message surprised me last week as I shopped at DeKalb’s Northlake Mall.

Displayed on a kiosk near one of the mall’s anchor stores, the poster features a photo of a young man. “That’s so ‘Jock who can complete a pass but not a sentence,’” it reads.

The ad continues: “Think that’s mean? How do you think ‘that’s so gay’ sounds? Hurtful. So, knock it off.”

The message is far better than DeKalb’s legalistic admonishment about bullying: It offers eye-catching imagery, a thought-provoking slogan, and a concrete example of what behavior is hurtful and why.

That’s where the state Department of Education should step in. A series of these posters, including anti-gay bullying but also addressing other types of bias and intimidation, should be displayed in all Georgia schools, and followed by classroom discussions about what they mean.

That’s not state school officials engaging in activism or advocacy. It’s ensuring that every Georgia student has the right to learn free of intimidation or discrimination.

But we have a feeling someone would try to “torpedo” that.

What, you aren’t aware of the rampant “torpedo” problem sweeping our schools?

Last month, the Georgia House debated an anti-bullying measure by Rep. Mike Jacobs (R-Atlanta).

Jacobs’ bill would expand the state’s existing bullying law to cover kindergarten to twelfth grade; current law doesn’t apply until sixth. It would also direct the Georgia Department of Education to develop a model policy on bullying.

But from the debate when the bill reached the House floor, you would think the measure was designed entirely to ensnare hapless kindergarteners who would be branded bullies for breaking another child’s pencil.

Rep. “Coach” Williams (D-Avondale Estates) offered an even more absurd scenario, questioning Jacobs twice over whether the bill would apply if two students picked up a third student and “torpedoed” him into a fourth child.

But the Department of Education doesn’t have to wait for the legislature to act.

Cases like Jaheem Herrera and Tyler Lee Long prove that anti-gay bullying is happening in Georgia schools; stories like the young man in Cochran, Ga., planning to take his boyfriend to the prom prove that LGBT students are growing more visible throughout the state.

It’s hard to imagine the state Department of Education remaining silent if two students committed suicide over alleged racial discrimination in less than 12 months, or if two young women killed themselves over persistent sexual harassment.

Anti-gay bullying should be taken just as seriously.

Editor Laura Douglas-Brown plans to shop at Northlake Mall more often. If you see pro- or anti-gay signs in unexpected places, send her a photo at lbrown@thegavoice.com.

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