South County Beat: Discussion puts focus on bullying

For Zac Toomay, the bullying started in sixth grade, when he moved from Arroyo Grande to Santa Maria.

At first, he was able to shrug off the name-calling, but one day, the bullying took a physical turn. Toomay, now a senior at Arroyo Grande High School, said a group of four boys who regularly taunted him started pushing him, and when he fell to the ground, started kicking and punching him and touching him in inappropriate places.

“They weren’t gay, but they did it to make me uncomfortable,” said Toomay, a statewide advocacy council member with the nationwide Gay-Straight Alliance Network, founded in 1998 to empower youth activists to start Gay-Straight Alliance clubs and fight homophobia and transphobia in schools.

Toomay told the school’s principal about the name-calling and the occasional shove, but nothing else. One of the students was expelled and three others suspended — but once they returned to school, the name-calling and the occasional physical abuse continued.

The kind of physical bullying that Toomay experienced has decreased, he said, thanks to increased awareness and monitoring by school staff.

But, he added, it hasn’t disappeared.

Toomay spoke to a group of about 50 students and community leaders gathered last week at a panel discussion organized by the South County Youth Coalition to discuss bullying through the eyes of the victim.

The group first watched a video about a gay student, Jamie Nabozny from Ashland, Wis., who won a $900,000 out-of-court settlement after suffering repeated abuse in middle and high school. He had filed a lawsuit in federal court against the school district and several administrators, alleging they had failed to protect him from years of anti-gay abuse and harassment.

Jackie Kavanaugh, a counselor at Judkins Middle School in Pismo Beach, said bullying has changed in the 15 years since Nabozny’s lawsuit. A lot of that has to do with technology — bullying is now quick, easy and anonymous.

Even if the online taunts or threats started at home, she said, it’s likely to spill onto the school campus the next day. Texting is also a problem, she said.

“Adolescents are so impulsive,” she said. “They don’t think, ‘I can never get this back.’ ”

And bullying isn’t limited to middle and high school.

Glenn Holzer, a San Luis Obispo County sheriff’s deputy and Nipomo High’s school resource officer, said last week he responded to a report of a threatening statement made on the Facebook page of an elementary school student.

There are some things parents and students can do. Tell someone, Kavanaugh said. Also, document the bullying, from online posts to text messages.

“We have a zero-tolerance policy, but if we don’t know about it, it’s really hard to do something about it,” she said.

And know your rights, said Ryan Page, an Arroyo High senior and leader of its Gay-Straight Alliance club.

State and federal laws protect students from discrimination and afford equal rights to education. Legislation introduced this year by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) would require districts to create strong and clear anti-harassment policies and programs if they don’t have them already.

Legislation passed last year allows youth ages 12 to 17 to receive mental health treatment or counseling without a parent’s consent when an attending professional believes the youth is mature enough for the services or when the youth presents a danger to himself or others without the services.

“I challenge youth to take advantage of the resources out there,” Page said.

Cynthia Lambert and Gayle Cuddy write the South County Beat column on alternating Wednesdays. Reach Cynthia Lambert at 781-7929. Stay updated by following @SouthCountyBeat on Twitter.