Three weeks after my oldest child started kindergarten, she threw a tantrum because I said "no" about something or other, and yelled, "Mama, you are a SISSY!" She clearly had little sense of the word's meaning, but had learned in her brief elementary school career that this was one of the worst epithets she could hurl in anger.
Today, GLSEN is proud to embark on an exciting new phase of our work in K-12 schools. We have released a groundbreaking new study that looks at school climate in the elementary grades. Further, we have created a critical new resource for teachers in grades K-5 - in partnership with our friends at the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) and the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC).
In our new report, Playgrounds and Prejudice: Elementary School Climate in the United States, we learn that the kind of language my daughter learned in only three weeks is far too common in our elementary schools. Name-calling and bullying in elementary schools reinforce gender stereotypes and negative attitudes toward people based on their gender expression, sexual orientation, disability, race, religion or family composition. Students and teachers report frequent use of disparaging remarks like "retard" and "that's so gay," and half of the teachers surveyed report bullying as a "serious problem" among their students. Students who do not conform to traditional gender norms are at higher risk for bullying, and are less likely than their peers to feel safe at school.
Previous GLSEN research has already demonstrated the high cost of such bias as students get older - consider the fact that nearly 40% of LGBT students in middle school report having been physically assaulted at school. It is absolutely critical that respect for others be part of the curriculum from day one if we are to end bullying, harassment and violence among youth. This report shows how far we still have to go.
There is, however, some good news. Elementary school teachers are alert to the problems that students face. A large majority report that their schools are taking action in some way to try to address bullying and harassment. Students report that they have at least heard some of the right messages about mutual respect and the equality of boys and girls. However limited their impact may be, these steps represent a foundation for the additional action urgently needed .
To support elementary school teachers, principals and school staff ready to build on that foundation, GLSEN is releasing a major new resource: Ready, Set, Respect! GLSEN's Elementary School Toolkit. Developed in partnership with NAESP and NAEYC - leaders in the field of elementary school education - Ready, Set, Respect! is part professional development and part curricular resource with lesson plans for addressing bullying and bias-based remarks, gender and inclusion of LGBT people in family diversity.
Awareness of the unacceptable price of prejudice is growing, as is the will to clear the path for a healthy and happy life for every child. I will do everything in my power to ensure that my daughters are free to thrive and follow that path. I hope you will join me and all of my GLSEN colleagues in the ongoing effort to ensure that every child is free to be their happiest, healthiest and best self.
Dr. Eliza Byard