In Wake of Morales Suicide, Two Takes on Bullying

The Amsterdam News and the Jewish Daily Forward report on how their respective communities confront school bullying. (Photo from Getty Images, via The Jewish Daily Forward)

School bullies might use discrimination to harass victims, but bullying itself doesn’t discriminate — it can infiltrate any community, as the ethnic and community media has reported. Lately, it has landed on the pages of the Amsterdam News and the Jewish Daily Forward. In the aftermath of the suicide of bullied 12-year-old Joel Morales of East Harlem, the African-American paper called attention to the under-reporting of bullying in communities of color. Meanwhile, the Jewish paper looked at some discord between two major Jewish organizations on the question of how to distinguish between free speech and bullying.

Cyril Josh Barker, writing for Amsterdam News, blames the mainstream media for focusing its attention on the white victims of bullies, but he also points out that bullying is under-reported within communities of color.

Morales’ bullying-related suicide is just one of several of Black and Latino youth. While headlines are often made about whites who take their own life as a result of bullying, little is heard about teens of color who deal with bullying.

A recent study by Ohio State University revealed that Black and Latino students who have high test scores are more likely to be harassed or teased at school. Students who don’t conform to the so-called negative stereotypes that are often associated with youth of color can also be subjected to ridicule from peers.

Youth activist Willie Davis, who founded the anti-bullying organization Project Speak Up Now, said Black and Latino youth are bullied for being different in a number of ways, ranging from being overweight or mentally challenged to being suspected of being homosexual or even not joining gangs. He said city schools aren’t doing enough and few are speaking up.

“If you are different, you are going to get picked on,” he said. “Bullying is at an all-time high, to the point that kids are killing themselves, and it’s not being recognized in the Black community.”

The activist organized an anti-bullying march with students last week that went from the Bronx to Harlem, culminating in a rally in Jackie Robinson Park.

“This needs to stop,” he said. “It’s the kids who want to do something positive with their lives who get targeted. We need something in the community that speaks up for them.”

The Jewish Daily Forward approached the bullying issue from a different angle, exploring a philosophical question: When it comes to bullying, where does free speech end and bullying begin?

Wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan “Homosexuality is shameful” could cause a public school student to be disciplined for offending classmates, federal courts have ruled.

But religious students say they should be free to express their beliefs — even if they are homophobic, racist or otherwise offensive — without being punished, especially in a public school.

Drawing the line between free speech or religious expression on the one hand and behavior that could be considered harassment or even bullying on the other is a growing problem for public schools nationwide.

In May, the American Jewish Committee and the Religious Freedom Education Project/ First Amendment Center released a report which emphasized “the need for school officials to tread carefully when disciplining students over messages that could be considered protected speech,” Naomi Zeveloff reported.

Marc Stern, the AJC’s general counsel, said the report was not meant to provide guidance on clear-cut harassment cases.

“Words that convey ideas are one thing; words that are used as assault weapons are another,” the report said.

Stern said the report aimed to help school administrators deal with the “harder cases,” those in which students express controversial ideas — sometimes based in religious teachings — such as “Homosexuality is a sin.”

Another major national Jewish organization, the Anti-Defamation League, rejected the report, saying that schools should focus instead on bullying prevention. In a letter to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, the group criticized the AJC for missing the bigger picture.

It suggested that the AJC’s focus on the tricky line between free speech and harassment might distract attention from the bigger problem of full-blown physical or verbal abuse.

“Bullying situations very rarely erupt as conflicts over political or religious speech,” the letter stated. “Instead, they much more often involve the intentional targeting of an individual with less physical or social standing for physical or verbal abuse.”

“It could create confusion for schools that are dealing with the serious problem of bullying,” said Deborah Lauter, the ADL’s director of civil rights. Lauter called the report “not necessary,” saying that free-speech protections were already detailed in an October 2010 letter from the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights on the topic of religion in public schools.

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