Jon, one of my former law students, contacted me Thursday evening; by the message he left I knew it was urgent that we talk. When we connected, he said with sadness in his voice, “I can’t believe he is only 11 years old.”
Jon was referring to Zebulon Middle School student Michael Morones, who tried to hang himself Jan. 23 with a necktie from the top of a bunk bed in his home.
When students like Jon sit in my “Sexual Identity and the Law” class each year, and we read cases related to the struggles of gay, lesbian and transgendered youth and adults, the faces are largely anonymous. Jon has been to Michael’s bedside, so Michael is no longer anonymous to him. Michael is clinging to life and if he survives, faces an uncertain future.
Michael is a fan of the cartoon series “My Little Pony,” known for its magical emphasis on messages of friendship, tolerance and respect. His parents believe he was bullied at school because of his fondness for the series, which is marketed more toward young girls. Jon’s consulting firm is working with the family to handle the outpouring of support they have been receiving from across the United States and the world. After talking with Jon and learning more about the situation, I realized how much the class I teach has informed my perspectives in this area.
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When we discuss the case of Nabozny v. Podlesny (7th Circuit 1996), it is hard to imagine those facts happening today: Jamie Nabozny was a Wisconsin teenager who was brutally teased and physically abused by fellow students because he was gay. The parties ended up in the school office, where the assistant principal at the high school rationalized the bullying behavior by saying that “boys will be boys.” She further instructed Nabonzy that if he was “going to be so openly gay” that he should “expect” such behavior from his fellow students. During his teen-age years, Nabonsky unsuccessfully attempted suicide at least twice. After he withdrew, he sued his former high school. Ultimately, it was determined that the school administration violated Nabozny’s 14th Amendment right to equal protection under the law by discriminating against him based on his gender and/or sexual orientation. When the case went to trial, the jury found in favor of Nabozny, who won a settlement from the school system of nearly $1 million.
Just as when a young person comes out as gay, a young person who chooses to act in ways that do not conform to traditional gender stereotypes (“gender expression”) can be subject to bullying. Gender expression is defined by the Gill Foundation as “the ways in which we each manifest masculinity or femininity.” Awareness of bullying and prevention efforts have increased since Nabonzy was a student, but problems persist. Bullying in today’s classrooms is no longer always as overt as it was in the Nabozny case, but bullying is still just as dangerous in its effect on our young people. In fact, because the bullying may be more subtle and invidious, it may be even more dangerous. As a result, many young people hesitate to express themselves honestly or if they do, they may suffer repercussions.
Our society must shoulder collective shame for this heavy burden we place on our children. Even if people disagree about the necessity of discrimination laws that cover gay, lesbian transgender or gender expression classifications, people cannot disagree that we have hundreds of thousands of people who fall under these classifications living in our country, many of whom are young people. What kind of society do we live in where an 11-year-old feels that life is too hard, too sad, too overwhelming, that he would try to take his own life? Michael appeared to be a happy young boy, but he clearly was struggling with serious issues. Did intense ridicule, shaming and judgment by his peers (and society in general) make Michael feel he needed to end his life?
While protecting young people from systematic shaming and ridicule should be a priority of society as a whole, teachers and school administrators have a special responsibility to look out for all children, not just “traditional” children. It is my hope in the wake of this senseless tragedy that Zebulon Middle School has made counselors available to talk to students who are Michael’s friends and classmates. Dealing with a suicide attempt at any age is hard, and the young people who are trying to understand why Michael attempted suicide may need to talk to professionals about this. Perhaps the school can engage Jamie Nabozny to speak at the school; as an advocate for safe schools, Nabozny now travels around the country to publicize the negative effects of bullying. Zebulon Middle School students should hear that Michael is just a regular 11-year-old kid who expresses himself in a different way.
It is my hope that Jon and all of my former students work to make our society a better place, a place where a child like Michael Morones can live and go about his day in peace. Children need to feel safe and protected and it will take all of us to make this happen. Michael deserves to live in a world where acceptance of differences is the norm – not some kind of magical fantasy.
Lydia Lavelle is an assistant professor at N.C. Central University School of Law and the mayor of Carrboro.