Bully on the Block

Céleste Perrino-Walker November/December 2012

??The school bully—singular—used to be the kid who’d turn the other kids upside down and shake the milk money out of their pockets. Times have certainly changed. These days bullies are everywhere, and today a bully doesn’t even need size to gain an advantage. The Internet has leveled the playing field, and geeks are as likely as pumped-up jocks to be bullies. Bullying has even gone equal opportunity, and girls have gained a reputation as bullies with finesse, spawning such books and movies as Mean Girls.

The result of all this bullying opportunity is widespread panic by officials, parents, and advocacy groups alike. With everyone scrambling to install safety protocols in schools and clubs where bullying is likely to happen, it is startling when bullying comes from the place you’d least expect it: officials themselves enforcing their sparkly new policies.

Brandon Wegner, 15, encountered bullying as a result of his work as a student reporter at Shawano Community High School, where he writes for the student-run school newspaper, the Hawks Post. He and another student, Maddie Marquardt, participated in a point-counterpoint piece on the subject of whether or not homosexual couples should be allowed to adopt children. Maddie took the “pro” side, and Brandon the “con” side. Their opinions ran side by side, with a picture of the teens, dukes up, in a boxing ring preparing to “battle it out.”

The Hawks Post is a student-run paper with student opinions and views. While their content is not controlled, they do have a faculty adviser who oversees the newspaper. The opinion pieces Brandon and Maddie wrote were published in the Green Bay Press Gazette, a local town paper. In this case the pen turned out to be far mightier than the sword, or even the fist. A homosexual parent, Nick Uttecht, who was offended by Brandon’s side of the article, wrote a formal letter to the school claiming the article constituted hate speech. “Uttecht told school district officials he thinks the piece opposing gays as parents is hateful and should not have run,” USA Today reported. “He worries the strong language will hurt his children and could lead students to bully gay classmates.”1

That’s when things started to get ugly. School officials immediately made the students pull Brandon’s article from the newspaper before it was distributed in the school. Brandon, according to Liberty Counsel, who is representing him, “was pulled into hours of meetings with school administrators and staff, without his parents’ knowledge. This caused him to miss exam preparation classes and at least one exam.

“Brandon was hauled before the superintendent on charges that he had violated the school’s bullying policy. Superintendent Todd Carlson told him that the column ‘went against the bullying policy,’ and asked him if he ‘regretted’ writing it. When Mr. Wegner stated that he did not regret writing it, and that he stood behind his beliefs, Superintendent Carlson told him that he ‘[has] got to be one of the most ignorant kids to try to argue with [me] about this topic,’ that ‘we have the power to suspend you if we want to,’ and that the column had ‘personally offended me, so I know you offended other people!’”2

After that a lot of people jumped into the ring with Brandon and Maddie, turning the point-counterpoint piece into a free-for-all. At the heart of the controversy, as expected, is the outrage over Brandon’s Christian viewpoints expressed in a school setting. As a nation we are so PC-sensitive now that even the mention of God in the same sentence with school makes us break out in hives. But the truth is that for any speech to be free, all speech must be free. Brandon expressed his viewpoint—his viewpoint—which happened to have a biblical base because Brandon is a Christian. The whole point of having a debate is for two people to have opposing viewpoints.

Interestingly, support for Brandon came from an unexpected quarter. Shawano school officials received a letter from the American College of Pediatricians, who supported Brandon’s position based on scientific studies of heterosexual versus homosexual parenting. One has to wonder if Brandon would have received as violent a reaction if he had quoted the results of these studies instead of Scripture.

Although Brandon was accused of bullying, the charge is erroneous because simply holding and expressing a viewpoint does not qualify as bullying. Bullying could be the end result of action that springs from a viewpoint, but it can’t be the viewpoint itself. Bullying, a verb, is, by definition, to scare, hurt, or threaten someone, or to cause them to do something by means of a threat, insult, or the use of force. Brandon’s article did not single out a person or make threats upon anyone. In contrast, the school’s behavior would fall under the category of bullying. Ironically, they acted as bullies enforcing their own policy against bullying.

The school apologized—not to Brandon Wegner, the recipient of their bullying, but to the community at large. The statement released by Superintendent Carlson extending the school’s regret was printed in USA Today: “The Shawano School District would like to apologize for a recent article printed in the Hawks Post newspaper. Proper judgment that reflects school district policies needs to be exercised with articles printed in our school newspaper. Offensive articles cultivating a negative environment of disrespect are not appropriate or condoned by the Shawano School District. We sincerely apologize to anyone we may have offended and are taking steps to prevent items of this nature from happening in the future.”3

Regrettably the school does not seem to see its own double standard. Their actions, though, expose the heart of the troubling, underlying issue at stake here.

The Dark-Horse Issue
While everyone’s attention is glued to the racier issue of homosexual parenting, the more disturbing, brand-spanking-new bullying policies with their potential for causing freedom-of-speech woes lurk waiting to make a horrific impact once they become more established. This is particularly relevant for Christians whose issues tend to be based on questions of morality. The problem is that the bullying policies are being drafted based on the new definition of tolerance. “The ‘new tolerance’ means: Not only do you put up with and endure and bear with those who have different views, habits, and/or lifestyles than your own, but you agree with their views as well,” wrote the late D. James Kennedy, Ph.D., in his article “The New Tolerance.” “Furthermore, you hold that their lifestyle is equally true and equally valid as your own, and therefore there is no possible way that you could be intolerant, because there is nothing to be intolerant of. You must even be willing to promote and endorse that other lifestyle, since it is every bit as good as yours.”4

According to Kennedy, “we’re rapidly sliding downhill. Does it matter? Yes, it matters because when you are criticizing what that person believes or what he does, you are hurting his ‘feelings.’ You are intolerant. You are demonstrating hatefulness to him, and that is a ‘hate crime.’ That can cause you to end up in court or jail. For the first time in history, you can be judged and sent to jail for what is inside your head or inside your heart. Who knows what lies beyond that step?”5 As Brandon’s case demonstrates, you don’t even need to single someone out, criticize their lifestyle choice, threaten them, or insult them; you merely need to mention that from a Christian perspective their behavior is wrong, and then you can be accused of “hate speech.”

Sane Bullying Policies?
The danger here is that no compassionate, caring, rational human being could possibly object to bullying laws, particularly in light of rabid media attention highlighting stories about bullied teens committing suicide. Of course we want to eliminate bullying. Of course we care about children and teens, even adults, and want to protect them. Of course we want to do everything in our power to set strict boundaries against bullies and enforce them. And therein lies the problem. We take our legitimate concern and legislate it with bullying policies written by people with agendas.

Consider what happened in Michigan. In December 2011 Governor Rick Snyder signed a bill into law that gives schools six months to develop clear anti-bullying policies that are required to be in place by the next school year. The original version of the bill had language some considered controversial, namely: “This section . . . does not prohibit a statement of a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction of a school employee, school volunteer, pupil, or a pupil’s parent or guardian.”6 Just paragraphs later the bill itself defines bullying as “any written, verbal, or physical act, or any electronic communication, by a pupil directed at one or more other pupils that is intended or that a reasonable person would know is likely to harm one or more pupils either directly or indirectly.”7

It passed in the Michigan state senate with the language included and was strongly criticized by Democrats. “One Michigan Democrat, Senator Gretchen Whitmer, . . . gave a speech harshly criticizing the passage of the bill, saying it creates a blueprint for bullying rather than preventing it. ‘You may be able to pat yourselves on the back today and say that you did something, but in actuality you are explicitly outlining how to get away with bullying,’ said Senator Gretchen Whitmer. ‘As passed today, bullying kids is OK if a student, parent, teacher, or school employee can come up with a moral or religious reason for doing it.’”8 Using this logic, we would be forced to conclude that a statement of belief equals a threat of violence intended to harm someone. When a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction constitutes a blueprint for bullying, it’s not a huge jump before it also constitutes a hate crime.

The version ultimately signed into law had the controversial language removed. Seventeen-year-old Katy Butler, hailed as a “new voice against bullying”9 by the Washington Post, is one of the people who worked on the wording of the Michigan legislation. Butler is a lesbian who says she was bullied for coming out in middle school. “Further in the future, we’re working on a national anti-bullying law.” “I’m really excited for that.”10

It is interesting to note that according to the FBI in its 2010 Hate Crime Statistics report, hate crimes—also called bias crimes—motivated by religious bias (1,322) were slightly higher than hate crimes motivated by gender bias (1,277), but crimes motivated by racial bias were more than both of them combined (3,135).11 These three bias-based crimes were only the top-ranking, not the only, categories. Clearly humanity as a whole could benefit from stronger deterrents for bias crimes. The questions are: Who will determine their language? What do they stand to gain? and What might we lose in order for them to gain it?

“No one wants to allow someone to bully another person,” says Mathew Staver, founder and chair of Liberty Counsel, “but oftentimes what these policies are geared to do is to literally silence the speech of those people who are Christians, or who have a moral viewpoint that homosexuality is wrong. The Brandon Wegner case is a classic example of that.”12

Only time will tell what happens with national legislation regarding this issue, but based on Michigan’s experience the outlook is chilling. As for Brandon Wegner, Staver says the school has ceased its harassment, and Liberty Counsel is waiting on Brandon’s parents to decide if they want to pursue any further legal action.

Céleste Perrino-Walker is a much-published author and editor who lives and works from her home in Rutland, Vermont.

1 www.usatoday.com/news/nation/story/2012-01-15/gay-parenting-shawano/52567228/1.
2 www.lc.org/index.cfm?PID=14102&AlertID=1360.
3 www.usatoday.com/news/nation/story/2012-01-15/gay-parenting-shawano/52567228/1.
4 www.christianpost.com/news/the-new-tolerance-27459/.
5 Ibid.
6 www.legislature.mi.gov/documents/2011-2012/billengrossed/Senate/pdf/2011-SEBS-0137.pdf.
7 Ibid.
8 http://grossepointe.patch.com/articles/anti-bullying-bill-passes-state-senate-draws-criticism.
9 www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/katy-butler-a-new-voice-against-bullying/2012/03/16/gIQAXUPbHS_story.html.
10 http://plymouth-mi.patch.com/articles/katy-butler-takes-bullying-awareness-to-national-stage.
11 www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/hate-crime/2010/tables/table-1-incidents-offenses-victims-and-known-offenders-by-bias-motivation-2010.xls.
12 Personal interview, Apr. 5, 2012.

Article Author: Céleste Perrino-Walker