Anti-bullying lesson: Schools should not “out” students to their parents!

A school district in Lehi, Utah, is on the defensive after its decision to out a student to his parents, and the situation backfiring.

We are not going to back down,” a spokeswoman for the school district said. “We take bullying very, very seriously.

The Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) has noted that while it is important for schools to deal with bullying and notify parents of any instances, this should be done without disclosing a students sexual orientation or gender identity.

“Taking away the choice for a LGBT student to come out on their own terms opens the door to significant risks, including harassment at school and family rejection,” GLSEN said.

The school said that it asked the student’s permission first. The student was hesitant to approach his parents himself, but agreed “reluctantly” to let an administrator speak with them.

Obviously, the school thought that once the parents knew, they’d be more involved with their child’s safety and wellbeing.

Except in this case, what happened is the parents stopped sending their child to school, have maybe put him in counseling, probably thinking that the school was indoctrinating him with too much gay tolerance. (Edit: The Salt Lake Tribune reports that the parents are supportive, but what if they hadn’t been???) A Facebook page then created a widespread false impression that the school suspended the student for being too vocal about his gayness in the classroom. This led to national media contacting the school for clarification.

A school cannot ensure that the student is safe or accepted at home, so it is never appropriate to out a student to his family.

25 thoughts on “Anti-bullying lesson: Schools should not “out” students to their parents!

  1. “Obviously, the school thought that once the parents knew, theyd be more involved with their childs safety and wellbeing.”

    Obviously? For a school in Utah county? Not obvious to me. “Let’s make his life miserable for causing trouble for us by being bullied” seems more like it. Maybe I’m just very, very, cynical.

  2. Well, I can’t think of any other reason a school official would consider it a good idea to out a student to his parents, except for holding a naive optimism about how those parents will respond.

  3. This is a troublesome situation and I agree that kids should control their own coming out. But this isn’t an easy situation and I’m curious how people think the district SHOULD have handled it.

    The kid was publicly flirty with another boy. He created a presentation intended for public display that outed him – and the teacher of that class made a point to ask him if he was really OK with it being public and he said yes.

    I guess the point is that his orientation was already, by his choice, in the public domain so to speak, and regardless of whether he’d discussed it with his parents. It was only a matter of time. As a parent, if my kid were having issues with bullying I’d want to know what is going on. Given the situation, how could they have handled it better?

  4. how could they have handled it better?

    I would have told the kid that it’s his choice to come out to his parents or not. If the bullying is substantial enough that the parents need to be informed (and it isn’t clear if that’s the case in this case or the school was in an anti-bullying crusade-mode), then I would tell the parents that their child is “being bullied.” If the parents press for details, I would have said, “You need to talk to your child.” If the child doesn’t want to talk about it at home, then that’s the kid’s decision, and it reflects the broken relationship the parents have with their child. The bullying itself can be remediated at the school.

    It’s important to remember that the kid’s “outness” doesn’t just occur in one “public domain.” Gay people often have to come out in every current or new situation — school, home, church, work, etc — and each environment has its own set of concerns and personalities.

  5. I’m quite aware of the difficulties of coming out, but my thinking is more in line with Troy Williams’ on this one (if you’ve seen the various Facebook discussions underway). Absolutes seldom apply to the realities of life, and the kid’s orientation was public. His parents were going to know and probably sooner rather than later. I’m more questioning of whether his orientation should have been posted on the wall at school. The teacher might have asked if his parents were in the loop, and if not, offered to give credit on the assignment but not posted it publicly. Had the teachers been more circumspect it might have bought the kid a lot more time, and kept things in his control. Naturally hindsight is 20/20

  6. with Troy Williams on this one (if youve seen the various Facebook discussions

    I haven’t. Do you have a link?

    Had the teachers been more circumspect it might have bought the kid a lot more time, and kept things in his control.

    I fail to see how telling the kid that his school assignment can’t be made public for his “own good” would be keeping things under his control.

  7. Here’s Troy’s money quote from his FB page:

    “I’m breaking rank with some gay thought. I applaud Alpine School District for talking to this kid’s parents. The kid publicly outed himself. A Lehi Middle School is not a safe place for an out teen. The parents have a right to know so that they can help protect their child.”

  8. Thanks very much, Chino. IMO, that logic does not hold up. It works in hindsight when the parents are supportive, but if the school outed the student to unaccepting parents, then they’d just make the student’s life harder.

  9. I don’t know whether my memories of Utah Valley matches current reality, but if he’s out at school and had posted his assignment, I’m sure his grandparents and third cousins twice removed have been informed several times with embellishments by numerous well wishers.
    And I am cynical enough to think that school officials received satisfaction and pleasure from sharing their concerns with his parents.

    I will also mention, that as a totalitarian control freak ogre, any school that I entrusted my little legal responsibility with, should they not disclose all pertinent facts about said child, would face the full fury of my unyielding wrath.

  10. The Huffington post reports:

    Local news channel ABC 4 cites a text message the student apparently sent to a friend, which reads: “The next day, she calls me down to the office and tells that she is going to basically force my (sic) out of the closet, by telling my parents that I am gay, despite my protests.”

    So, yeah, Suzanne, I agree the school officials probably received satisfaction in outing the student to his parents.

    Valerie Larabee, Executive Director of the Utah Pride Center, puts it best, I think. She says shes glad the student is safe, but “the consequences of outing someone at the wrong time can be devastating”:

    We always encourage people that before they come out to the most important people in their life that they build a support system around themselves, in case the conversations dont go well. And we never encourage people to come out without being prepared for that.

    “Im not sure how a 14-year-old can prepare for that within several hours.”

    I see no reason why the school had to “take control” of his outing himself. Their focus should be on the bullying.

  11. Their focus should be on the bullying.

    Absolutely, but it’s difficult to alert parents to a potential bullying problem without telling them the circumstances of the bullying. I can’t say how accurate the school’s side of the story is, but from the article it’s not clear that the school disclosed confidential information.

    If the parents were at the school to discuss the bullying problem (or to discuss any other aspect of the student’s progress), they would typically see (or be shown) their child’s work that is posted publicly in the halls or classrooms — and in this case they would see the assignment for themselves. Are you saying that the student’s work (which he agreed to post for the entire school to see) should have been withheld from his parents?

  12. @12 — Very true. Personally, I doubt the school’s version of the story is accurate. I think there’s a decent chance that the whole “Hey, we were just concerned about bullying!” story was invented (or at least exaggerated) after they started getting negative feedback. But now that they’ve said it, maybe they will start taking real steps to prevent bullying in Utah high schools.

  13. chanson @ 11:

    When 15-year-old Larry King was murdered by a fellow classmate, his mother claimed that if the school had somehow “contained” her gay son’s behavior, he might still be alive.

    What happened here was that a 14-year-old boy came out to his class, some students made snide remarks, and then the boy was sat in the principle’s office and told that either he needed to come out to his parents, or the administrator would do it for him, because “parents need to be involved when there’s bullying.”

    So, the point of the parents finding out anyway eventually, or seeing his assignment on the wall, is irrelevant to the terrible response of this school to the situation. There was no need to out the student to his parents. A school is supposed to be a safe place for a student, even when a home may not be. The school should have outed the bullies to their parents, but instead felt comfortable “containing” the gay student’s behavior as opposed to combating the heterosexism at the school.

    Chino @ 12:

    Sure, it’s good the discussion is being had. I just hope this school doesn’t shrug off the national criticism it is receiving about how what they did was wrong. I’m glad that even a school in Utah is recognizing gay bullying as a problem and is genuinely motivated to combat it, but obviously more training is needed.

  14. The school should have outed the bullies to their parents, but instead felt comfortable containing the gay students behavior as opposed to combating the heterosexism at the school.

    Maybe they’re planning to talk to the bullies’ parents too. Maybe they did talk to the bullies’ parents. Maybe their action had nothing to do with containing the gay students behavior as opposed to combating the heterosexism at the school. I can’t read their minds, can you?

    The thing is that we really don’t know what happened in Lehi. We don’t know what the school administrators said to that student, we don’t know what they said to the parents, and we don’t know what was the remark that other kid allegedly said in the hall; how threatening it may (or may not) have been, or whether it was the only incident of harassment that the school was aware of.

    parents need to be involved when theres bullying.

    I don’t know who you’re quoting here, but it’s not me. (Remember this discusssion? — and BTW you didn’t answer my question @11.)

    It’s possible for a school to pass information to parents in a way that is harmful and malicious, but on the other end of the spectrum, the school is responsible for the students’ safety during school hours, and there are cases where it is appropriate (or even required) for the school to inform a minor’s legal guardians about incidents that took place on school grounds. I’m saying that we don’t have enough information to determine whether the school’s actions were appropriate or not.

  15. p.s. I just re-read my comment @11 and your response to me @14, and this is an example of exactly what I was talking about in the discussion I cited. I asked you a straight-forward, non-hostile question (because it was not clear to me precisely which part(s) of the school’s actions you objected to). And instead of responding to my question, you responded to something else entirely, and pasted my name onto it as though you were somehow responding to me.

    Please don’t do that. It’s annoying. And it doesn’t help us have an interesting and reasonable discussion here at MSP.

  16. ??? If you view my @14 as not responding to you and/or as tangential, then I can only chalk it up to us having different thinking patterns. I responded to your @11. I said, “the point of the parents finding out anyway eventually, or seeing his assignment on the wall, is irrelevant” to the overall fact that the kid’s privacy was wrongly invaded. My comment @ 14 was my framing of the situation to try to illustrate to you how I see the school’s actions were wrong.

    You say there’s not enough info to make a determination. Okay, fine. I say that if a school wants to take on the responsibility of informing parents that they’re child is gay (regardless of the circumstances), then I hope that school is also willing to take on the responsibility of providing a new home for that kid if the kid is kicked out by his parents for being gay. I don’t see this situation as a question of protocol about how schools are supposed to handle minors. I walk through a crowd of homeless kids everyday on my way to work, many of whom are queer. As far as I’m concerned, kids often need to be protected from their parents. A public school can be made more accountable than private homes in making sure a kid is safe at the school. Breaking a kid’s privacy does not create a sense of safety.

  17. If the parents were at the school to discuss the bullying problem (or to discuss any other aspect of the students progress), they would typically see (or be shown) their childs work that is posted publicly in the halls or classrooms and in this case they would see the assignment for themselves. Are you saying that the students work (which he agreed to post for the entire school to see) should have been withheld from his parents?

    My question here is — supposing the parents happened to be in the school for a legitimate purpose — would you expect the school to treat a student assignment that was posted on a classroom wall as though it were confidential?

    The point of the above question is the following: You’re claiming that the school’s actions were wrong. I ask: Which part was wrong?

    A. Informing the parents that the school officials have reason to be concerned that the student is being bullied? (Follow-ups: It is always wrong for schools to inform parents of bullying victims of incidents that take place on school grounds? Or are there circumstances that made it wrong in this case?)

    B. Telling the parents the circumstances of the bullying (including telling them that other students believe that he is gay).

    These are not rhetorical questions — I would simply like some clarification on what you’re arguing.

  18. Meta-discussion: pardon me for cluttering this discussion with meta-discussion.

    My question was: Is the student’s posted assignment confidential information w.r.t. the students parents? You answered:

    the point of the parents finding out anyway eventually, or seeing his assignment on the wall, is irrelevant to the overall fact that the kids privacy was wrongly invaded.

    I didn’t ask whether the parents finding out eventually makes it OK to invade someone’s privacy. That is a completely different question. There are plenty of circumstances where I’m not at liberty to tell someone something (because I have agreed to keep it confidential) even though I have reason to believe the other person will find out anyway. The question was whether the student’s assignment was confidential, or whether it was something the school would normally be at liberty to show to parents.

  19. If it’s determined that the home environment is safe (that is, informing about bullying will not lead to more bullying at home), then parents ought to be informed that their kid is being bullied and the circumstances of it as per the parents’ questions. It would be irresponsible of the school to bring in the parents if this will only make the student’s life more unsafe. In this case, the kid expressed that he definitely didn’t want his parents to know. The school framed it as “we never apologize for involving the parents.” The school could have potentially made his home life unsafe.

    supposing the parents happened to be in the school for a legitimate purpose would you expect the school to treat a student assignment that was posted on a classroom wall as though it were confidential?

    I’m pretty sure legally a school cannot withhold or “hide” school assignments from parents. But the happenstance of this 14-year-old’s parents visiting that particular classroom (middle schoolers have more than one classroom) and seeing his assignment on the wall strikes me as not likely to this situation.

    What you’re asking @19 is a different question. Instead of the parents happening upon the assignment, you’re asking whether the school has a right to bring assignments to parents’ attention. Of course they do (legally). The fact they brought this one to the parents’ attention when the student trusted the classroom space to be a safe space is what’s so wrong here.

  20. OK, thanks for clarifying. So to recap, you think that neither A nor B of @18 is necessarily wrong on principle, but you question the school’s motives and you feel that — regardless of whether they thought they were helping the kid — their choice to involve the parents at that point was unwise (and probably did more harm than good). Is that it?

    If so, I think that’s probably true, but I don’t think we have enough information to make that judgement definitively.

    What youre asking @19 is a different question. Instead of the parents happening upon the assignment, youre asking whether the school has a right to bring assignments to parents attention. Of course they do (legally).

    I asked whether the walls of a classroom are normally considered confidential or whether they considered are public information w.r.t. the parents of the students of the school. (And I illustrated with some examples of why one might consider it public.) When it is or isn’t a good idea to go out of your way to point out public information to someone who wasn’t aware of it is another question.

    The fact they brought this one to the parents attention when the student trusted the classroom space to be a safe space is whats so wrong here.

    Aha, that’s the crux of the question! Should a student expect that schoolwork he posts on the wall of a classroom at school is private w.r.t. members of the school community (including other students, parents, teachers, administrators, staff, etc.)? It’s not clear that that’s a reasonable expectation.

  21. Its not clear that thats a reasonable expectation.

    Students often have lives at school their parents don’t know about because of a sense of distance between the two spheres. Teachers know this. It’s not unreasonable for a kid to expect to be able to be out at school and not at home. I don’t think the crux of the question is whether the student should have known that outing himself in one sphere would lead to people spreading his business to another sphere. Certainly, he learned a lesson that day not to trust the adults at his school as much. The crux is whether the adults in his life responded appropriately with the information they had. They didn’t. In fact, it almost sounds like as soon as his assignment was posted, gears were in motion among the staff to out him to his parents to “prevent bullying.”

  22. Its not unreasonable for a kid to expect to be able to be out at school and not at home.

    I totally agree that it is reasonable for a kid to expect to be out at school and not at home. Please review my comments @16 and @19.

    I’m beginning to feel like this discussion is more effort than it is worth.

  23. Anyone know how much a school is legally required to disclose to parents? Is a school putting itself in danger of legal liability by withholding from parents the reasons their child is in danger? On the other hand, are they making themselves liable if they disclose information without the student’s permission? In other words, is this a catch-22 for the school?

  24. Jonathan @24: It’s not a catch-22. Minors have very little privacy rights, so I highly doubt the kid could sue. If the kid gets hurt from danger, parents can only sue for negligence if it’s clear the school did nothing or very little to address the bullying (and that what they did was comparable to what they knew was happening, since a lot of bullying happens under the radar). The question of bullying is not a question of the parents having a right to know everything that happens at the school; it’s a question of the safety of the child.

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