January 17, 2011

>GLSEN Board Member Sirdeaner Walker's Speech at MLK Celebration at Wal-Mart Headquarters

>GLSEN Board Member Sirdeaner Walker delivered the keynote speech today at a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. celebration at Wal-Mart headquarters in Arkansas. The following is Sirdeaner's speech about her family's story, Dr. King's legacy and the need to do more to make our schools safer for all.

Good afternoon and thank you for inviting me to be a part of this event today as we honor one of our American heroes, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And thank you to Mike Duke and the Wal-Mart Associate Resource Groups for organizing this event.

My name is Sirdeaner Lynn Walker, and I am here to speak with you about the need for action on bias-based bullying and harassment in our schools.

I must start by saying that I am not a polished professional speaker, but a mom sharing my tragic story. I have been proud to speak often on this subject, but today, as we reflect on the legacy Dr. King left to us, I am especially sad that we haven’t fully learned the lessons of justice and equality that he taught us. I try to remind myself, as Dr. King said, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars.

I hope you will open your hearts to hear my story and my son Carl’s.

Two years ago, I was an ordinary working mom, looking after my family and doing the best I could.

But my life changed forever on April 6, 2009.

That was the night I was cooking dinner when my son, Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, went to his room where I imagined he'd be doing his homework or playing his videogames. Instead, I found him hanging by an extension cord tied around his neck.

He was 11 years old.

Carl liked football and basketball and playing video games with his little brother. He loved the Lord and he loved his family.

What could make a child his age despair so much that he would take his own life?

That question haunts me to this day, and I will probably never know the answer.

What we do know is that Carl was being bullied relentlessly at school. He had just started middle school in September, and we had high hopes, but I knew something was wrong, almost from the start.

He didn't want to tell me what was bothering him, but I kept at him, and he finally told me that kids at school were pushing him around, calling him names, saying he acted "gay," and calling him "faggot."

Hearing that, my heart just broke for him. And I was furious.

So I called the school right away and told them about the situation. I expected they would be just as upset as I was, but instead, they told me it was just ordinary social interaction that would work itself out.

I desperately wish they had been right.

I did everything that a parent is supposed to: I chose a "good" school; I joined the parent-teacher organization; I went to every parent-teacher conference; I called the school on a regular basis to bring the bullying problem to the staff's attention.

But the school did not act. The teachers did not know how to respond.

After Carl died, I was devastated. More than anything, I wanted to do something to make sure his death hadn’t been in vain, but I didn’t know where to start … and I wasn’t sure that anyone really cared.

So I can’t tell you what it meant to me, when only days after Carl died, I received a letter from Eliza Byard and GLSEN, which stands for the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network.

It was the first letter I’d received. I have to admit, I was a little confused. My son Carl didn’t identify as gay or straight. He was still a child. But it was such a comfort to hear that I was not alone.

It was the start of a personal journey I never imagined I’d take.

Over the past two years I have learned so much and GLSEN has shown me ways that I can truly make a difference.

I have learned that the taunts that my son faced are a daily part of life for too many students – more than four out of five lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students report experiencing verbal harassment at school because of their sexual orientation. At least a third reported facing physical violence.

Students who experience this kind of bias and violence are more likely to have lower grades, more likely to skip school, and less likely to plan to graduate and go on to college than students who do not face the same discrimination.

And as I learned more about the problem, I’ve also learned about the solutions.

Bullying is not an inevitable part of growing up. It can be prevented.

Educators need additional support and clear guidance about how to ensure that all kids feel safe in school.

That is why I have chosen to advocate for the Safe Schools Improvement Act – federal legislation that would make effective anti-bullying policies mandatory in nearly every school in the United States.

And when I say effective, I mean policies that have been shown to correlate with reduced victimization and a greater sense of safety and belonging for ALL students–anti-bullying policies that include enumerated categories of protection, such as race, sex, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability and any other distinguishing characteristic.

If you don’t name the problem, schools don’t act—especially, if they are afraid of the controversy that can surround particular issues, like sexual orientation.

The Safe Schools Improvement Act currently has bipartisan support with 130 cosponsors in the House and 13 cosponsors in the Senate. The Act is supported by the National Safe Schools Partnership, a GLSEN-led coalition of more than 70 national organizations, including:

The National Association of School Psychologists
The American Federation of Teachers
The National Council of La Raza
Big Brothers, Big Sisters of America

I know that the only way to end this destructive bullying is to find common ground, and passing comprehensive federal legislation will offer a significant step forward in reaching that objective.

In the 1950s when the federal courts ordered schools to desegregate, African American students were subjected to bullying that today shocks most of us. Elizabeth Eckford, one of the nine students who integrated Little Rock Central High School talked about the crowd of adults who greeted them on their first day,

“They moved closer and closer ... Somebody started yelling ... I tried to see a friendly face somewhere in the crowd—someone who maybe could help. I looked into the face of an old woman and it seemed a kind face, but when I looked at her again, she spat on me.”

What used to be considered acceptable behavior in parts in the United States is now considered detestable to all but the most racist among us. And yet, it continues to be difficult for our society to understand the damage that is being done today when we accept bullying in our schools.

We can’t know how Dr. King would have reacted to this situation where the bullying of children over their real or perceived sexual orientation has come to such tragic consequences. But we do know that Dr. King was concerned with justice and equality. We know that he changed our perception that if you’re “different” the majority of people can treat you differently. We know that he believed we are connected to each other.

He said, “Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. You can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.”

I like to think that Dr. King would have been a leader in the fight against bullying because he understood how important education was – for the oppressor as well as the oppressed. I imagine he would have counseled the kids tormented at school as he once encouraged African Americans, to assert their dignity and worth. In his It Gets Better video, he might have drawn on his earlier call to “stand up amidst a system that oppresses you and develop an unassailable and majestic sense of values.”

Early in Dr. King’s career, his main advisor and mentor was Bayard Rustin, a civil rights activist who had studied the teachings of Gandhi. Rustin was openly gay and that fact led many of Dr. King’s advisors to demand that he distance himself from Rustin.

Some of my closest and dearest friends and family members protested that I should not align myself with a “gay” organization. So you see, even we adults have not yet learned that sexual orientation is not cause for alarm or fear, or even hate.

If we had learned this – if we had embraced Dr. King’s hope that we would judge people by the content of their character above all else – our children wouldn’t suffer with homophobic taunts. They would not be treated badly, and they wouldn’t be ashamed to be different from the majority. And we would co-exist without the need to pull others down, threaten them, or drive them to despair.

My partnership with GLSEN has helped me see that this issue is about what kind of learning environments we want for our children and how far we’re willing to go to protect and teach them.
In the words of Chief Justice Earl Warren, “it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education.”

My son was denied a lifetime of opportunities.

Dr. King was able to persevere because, as he said, he had faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. And I hope that’s true for those of us who have lost our children.

But I feel that Dr. King’s call for change applies to this issue, today. “Now…is not the time to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.”

So I will continue my work to build awareness of this critical issue. I will also continue to be an involved parent in my children’s education—I must not fail my children or anyone else’s child.

And I will continue to advocate for the Safe Schools Improvement Act, to provide schools and educators with the tools and resources that they need to more effectively intervene.

So in closing, I thank you once again for the honor of this opportunity. I ask each of you to think of others as equals so that we come closer to Dr. King’s dream of a country where we all live together in brotherhood, and to please do everything in your power to help us to put a stop to school bullying.

Thank you very much.

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