Prevention is key: Jamie Nabozny speaks out against bullying in schools

Jamie Nabozny spoke at the Darien Public Library about the bullying he received growing up for being gay. He shared what he feels is the right course of action for addressing bullying in the schools.
Jamie Nabozny spoke at the Darien Public Library about the bullying he received growing up for being gay. He shared what he feels is the right course of action for addressing bullying in the schools.Megan Spicer

Jamie Nabozny attempted suicide at the age of 12 and ran away from home twice before graduating high school. He feared school and dreaded the time between classes.

He was verbally and sexually harassed by classmates. He was physically abused. Things were thrown at him. He was spit on. He was kicked.

The administration in his Ashland, Wisc., school did nothing about it.

He was told that "boys will be boys," and that if he chose to act so openly gay, he should expect the consequences that came along with it.

After years of suffering from the abuse, the then 20-year-old Nabozny took the school district and its administrators to court in a landmark case that found that the school districts were accountable for not stopping anti-gay abuse and bullying.

The story of Nabozny's abuse and the 1996 court trial was part of an hour-long documentary called "Bullied," that was shown at the Darien Public Library on Thursday, March 14.

"You have to fight back when something's not right," Nabozny told the audience, which included parents and their children. Earlier that day, Nabozny spoke to students at Darien High School.

"The questions I asked at the school today were how many of them have heard `That's so gay,' in the last three weeks, and I probably had 60 or 70 percent of the hands go up," Nabozny said. "And then I asked how many of them have heard the word `retard,' and it was probably closer to 80 percent of their hands went up. I then asked how many of them have heard somebody called a `fag' or a `dyke' and I would say about 50 percent of their hands went up. And then I asked how many of them have heard someone called a `bitch,' a `slut' or a `whore' and 90 percent of their hands went up.

"And then I asked how many of those students walked into the school every day feeling safe and welcome and not one hand went up. This is an issue. There are kids walking into that school that don't feel safe and don't want to be there."

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Nabozny pointed out several key areas that he feels are lacking in the anti-bullying forces. The first being prevention.

"I firmly believe that the United States believes they're better crisis managers than they are prevention managers and we'd rather spend 10 times more on crises management than a little bit of money to prevent something," Nabozny said.

Teaching children about the world that they are going to live in is critical, Nabozny said.

"Not the world that we lived in in 1952, and not the world some people wished we lived in, but the world that we actually live in," he said. It's not to make a certain minority feel comfortable, he said, but to make everyone feel comfortable.

Darien Schools Superintendent Stephen Falcone said Nabozny's message of the importance of empathy is critical.

"To be able to put someone in someone else's shoes is what we try to do at all the schools," Falcone said. There are programs to teach empathy in all the schools. But no matter how many programs children are offered, bullying can still take place, Falcone said.

"We're not immune to it, but we've got to be up front about it," Falcone said. "We probably don't have the kinds of physical altercations that other places have, but that doesn't mean there aren't other methods of intimidation that we have to address."

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered students are the No. 1 targets for bullying in schools, according to Nabozny, but the problem isn't that bullies are homophobic.

"We have a problem with sexism," Nabozny said, adding that kids in second grade wouldn't be harassed for wearing a gay pride shirt, but would instead get harassed for not acting as expected for a boy or a girl. "This is not just an LGBT issue."

From an early age, Nabozny said, children are told how to act -- that girls don't play with those toys, that boys don't cross their legs like that.

He told a story of a girl who came out in the ninth grade. She was very "butch," he said, but she was accepted by the boys and girls alike. She played sports and no one thought any differently of her.

That changed, however, when she started to date one of the "hot cheerleaders." The boys started to harass her because she now had something the boys in the school felt was theirs, he said he believes.

Though, according to a Pediatrics Journal study, bullying decreases as the teens get older. The study followed roughly 4,000 teens in England, 45 percent of whom identified as lesbian, gay or bisexual, from 2004 to 2010 and found that while 57 percent of 13- to 14-year-old lesbians were bullied or harassed, that number significantly decreased to 6 percent by the time they were 19 and 20.

Similarly, there was just as radical a drop for gay boys. A reported 52 percent of 13- and 14-year-old gay boys reported being harassed and bullied, but by the time they were 19 and 20, the harassment had dropped to 9 percent.

But bullying in today's society has a broader scope than it did in a pre-Internet time.

According to a recent Pew Center for Research study, 88 percent of social media-using teens have seen someone be mean or cruel on a network site. There is hope, however, and Nabozny has seen it.

He spoke of a recent trip to Pennsylvania, when he spoke with a group of students who wanted to deter negative comments on social networking sites, particularly Facebook, where mean and hurtful comments on walls are public for the community to see.

Their plan was to divvy up their classmates and watch out for any negative comments, and if they saw one, it would be flagged and a message along the lines of "you cut that out" was sent.

Two weeks after Nabozny left the school, the principal called and told him that nearly 40 Facebook profiles has been suspended; three or more instances of flagged content will suspend an account.

He also said it wasn't just the initial group that was doing the flagging as other students joined in to put an end to the mean comments.

Even more so, the behavior spilled into the tangible world and the amount of bullying in the schools decreased as well.

The final message that Nabozny left with the audience is that sometimes more aggressive language needs to be used in order to get the attention of district staff and administration.

"What I don't hear is assault," Nabozny said. "What I don't hear is sexual harassment. What I don't hear is sexual assault. But when you have a kid that has been physically harmed in any way, they've been assaulted. And you need to use that language to get attention immediately from whoever you call.

"Believe me, ears will perk up when you use that language.";203-972-4407;