Experts decry DeKalb School System’s attempt to downplay epithet with simple definition
When Jaheem Herrera carried a pink backpack to Dunaire Elementary School in DeKalb County one day, classmates taunted him and called him “gay.”
And what the students actually meant when they said “gay” was “happy,” at least according to a retired Superior Court judge hired by the DeKalb School System to investigate allegations by Herrera’s mother that her son was so relentlessly bullied at the school that he hanged himself April 16.
“The children use ‘gay’ for anything and everything. The clothing is gay, the gesture is gay, what they say is gay, and that is a term they use,” Judge Thelma Wyatt Cummings Moore said at a press conference last week. “Now with these students we asked them, ‘Well, what does gay mean?’ They said ‘gay means happy,’ and this is many of the students.”
Some students said they were told by teachers that gay means happy, Moore said.
The district’s contention that students at Dunaire didn’t understand what gay means, or used it in a positive sense, has been met with disbelief and anger by gay activists, academics and some of the district’s own allies.
“I pretty much came to the same conclusion that the judge did, that there was no bullying, it all happened outside of the teacher’s presence,” said David Schutten, president of the Organization of DeKalb Educators, a 5,000-member branch of the National Education Association.
“But when they got to the part of about the word gay, I didn’t understand that,” he said.
Schutten has worked with teachers in DeKalb and taught in the school system himself. He maintains students know the word is only used in a negative sense and does not mean “happy.”
“I’m going to talk to the teachers and find out about that,” he said. “With kids that age, they know it’s a derogatory comment. Some know what it means, some don’t, but they think it’s an insult.”
‘Please! They know’
Both Moore and Superintendent Crawford Lewis have said multiple times that the students at Dunaire didn’t understand what the word “gay” meant, and that they didn’t mean it in a sexual context.
“Some students did tell us they had asked their teacher what gay meant and their teachers are the ones who told them gay means happy,” Moore said at the conference to detail the internal findings.
Southern Voice made a request for a written copy of Moore’s report under Georgia’s open records laws. The school had not responded by press time, but an assistant to DeKalb School System spokesperson Dale Davis said she was unaware of a written report.
Herrera’s parents are set to sue the school system for alleged wrongdoing that led to the 11-year old boy’s suicide. Through the internal investigation by Moore, the system is denying any wrongdoing.
Rev. Dennis Meredith of Tabernacle Baptist Church and the Faith & Community Alliance has been acting as an unofficial liaison between the gay community and Herrera’s parents. He raised two children and was astonished with Moore’s claims of the students’ innocence of what “gay” really means.
“Please, those kids know what that word means,” he said. “At 11-years old? Please! They know, they know.”
While technically accurate — a Webster’s Dictionary definition of the word states on first entry that “gay” means “joyous, merry” while a second entry includes the definition of “homosexual, especially a homosexual man” — Dr. Ugena Whitlock of Kennesaw State University said the word is rarely used to mean happy.
“It does mean happy, but that’s now the secondary use of the word. I don’t know how to prove it, but I believe that people don’t use gay to mean happy anymore because of its connections to homosexuality,” she said.
Whitlock created the queer studies program at Kennesaw State and teaches education classes to undergraduate students. While the word “gay” continued to be used in positive, non-homosexual instances into the 1970s, it has been the chosen word to describe homosexual people for decades.
“I can’t say a specific date, but gay folk have used that word for years,” she said. “The word the gay community has chosen is gay and it goes back at least to the homophile community in the big cities in the 1940s.”
Teachers take safe route
Ellen Kahn is the director of the Human Rights Campaign’s Family Project. She is developing a pilot program titled “Welcoming Schools” the HRC hopes to take nationwide within two years. The program has the mission of making schools safe for all children, including LGBT students. She takes exception to the argument the DeKalb School System is using when it comes to students using the word “gay.”
“It’s not accurate and it’s not helpful in the way that it’s used. It has a negative connotation, especially in the way kids use it,” she said. “Kids are not using that word to mean happy, they just aren’t. The teacher’s response, if that’s what they’re saying when kids say that, it seems like the safest response.”
The safest response is often the only response teachers feel comfortable with. Sexual orientation is such a politically sensitive topic, some teachers are afraid to approach it.
“Teachers are so afraid that if they say something that some parent is going to call up and say you’re promoting homosexuality, that’s the fear in Georgia. If it were a place like California it would be different,” said Schutten of the Organization of DeKalb Educators.
Beyond political considerations, a number of teachers are not comfortable addressing gay issues, said Whitlock of Kennesaw University.
“In the teacher education programs we do deal with it under diversity training,” Whitlock said. “A lot of teachers are uncomfortable with it.”
Teacher attitudes can be key because the tone teachers and administrators set largely controls the culture of the school. Schutten said that the use of gay slurs varies from school to school and from classroom to classroom.
Sir Jesse McNulty is as a transgender DeKalb junior high school teacher who serves as a mentor at YouthPride. McNulty said he has heard reports of teachers making comments like, “You sound like a girl,” to male students.
“They know that I don’t tolerate insults,” McNulty said. “No one messes with Sir Jesse, I’ve made that clear.”
Schutten still mentors students, and when he was teaching he said he made it clear he did not accept certain behavior.
“Students know not to say ‘faggot’ around me, they know not to say ‘nigger’ around me,” he said. “They know I won’t tolerate those words said in my presence.”
Jeannie Senter, coordinator for PFLAG’s Safe Schools anti-bullying program, said the school system risks damaging its credibility by giving an out-of-date definition of the word gay.
“I think it gives a message to students that the teacher maybe isn’t in touch with 2009, or 2005, or 2004, and they probably thinking, ‘Well cool, let her keep thinking that,’” Senter said.
DeKalb School System risks ‘losing credibility’
When students ask what gay means, Superintendent Lewis said it is a “teachable moment.” Experts believe that there are better ways to answer the question than to claim the word means “happy.”
Kahn said a teacher saying “gay means happy” is a deflection, and kids can see through that.
“There a couple of things you do. You could ask the class, you could turn the question back on the class,” Kahn said. “A lot of times the kids often don’t know what it means, but they know they are using it in a negative way.”
McNulty said he can’t address every instance of one of his seventh graders using gay slurs, but does his best to address it and move on.
“A lot of times I’ll say ‘Why are you talking about who’s gay? What does it matter about who’s gay? We’re doing math, so let’s talk about math,’” he said.
Senter said teachers don’t have to explain that gay means homosexual.
“They can explain that it’s a negative term and they don’t want to hear it,” Senter said.
Herrera’s death has raised a number of questions about teacher training and comfort level with gay issues. PFLAG, the Anti-Defamation League and other groups have offered free anti-bullying training to the DeKalb School System, but the district has yet to publicly accept any organization’s offer.
Kahn said that the average teacher has had less than an hour of training on GLBT issues and many have reported not feeling comfortable addressing gay issues.
McNulty said he as worked with the ADL’s No Place for Hate program that Dunaire used, and found it lacking.
“They don’t have anything to specifically address gay issues, even for teachers like me,” he said.
Bill Nigut, the ADL’s southeast regional director, defended the program and said it is effective even though it does not specifically address gay slurs.
“We have seen dramatic evidence of the success of No Place for Hate in creating a climate of respect in numerous metro-Atlanta schools. But even as many students embrace those positive values, sadly, no anti-bullying program will completely eliminate the problem,” Nigut said.
“We will work with the DeKalb County schools to offer them additional ADL in-depth training to address destructive behavior in schools across the system.”
tl;dr: Some dude leading the investigation into Jaheem Herrera's suicide says that when the kids called him gay, they meant it as a positive thing. This? Complete bullshit.