Michael Boddie has a career goal: to teach Spanish in a Georgia high school.
He also has a dream, which he hopes to fulfill in part through his chosen career: to help promote respectful behavior between students, regardless of what they look like, act like or believe.
With regard to his career goal, Boddie is a Georgia Southern University senior, and he is set to graduate this week. He has student-taught in several Bulloch County public schools and has applied for several teaching jobs in Georgia.
He also has made progress on his dream while working toward his career goal and by recently representing Georgia at the Safe Schools Advocacy Summit, an annual national conference in Washington, D.C., hosted by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network.
“Michael was selected to participate in the summit because of his previous involvement with safe schools advocacy,” the organization said in a news release. “Michael is a community leader from Statesboro and has worked within his school to draw attention to bullying and harassment. As president of the Georgia Southern University Gay-Straight Alliance, Michael has planned and managed Georgia Southern's largest LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) youth summit.”
Boddie said an important focus of the summit was learning how to effectively advocate for the safety and respect of all students, regardless of their background. The education network has increasingly focused on antibullying efforts in recent years because a significant percentage of bullying — whether in person or through social media, other Internet-based communications, texting or instant messaging —involves real or perceived sexual orientation.
Part of that effort involves lobbying or otherwise engaging lawmakers. The summit educated attendees about the Safe Schools Improvement Act, which was introduced in both the U.S. House and Senate earlier this year. The legislation would amend the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which is the law that regulates federal funding for public schools, to require that school districts establish antibullying policies and procedures that specifically identify categories of students, such as race or ethnicity, disability, sex, sexual orientation or religion — actual or perceived.
“Everyone — Republican, Democrat, liberal, straight, whatever — we can all agree that we want our children safe,” Boddie said.
Most states and school districts, including Georgia and Bulloch County, already have laws and policies concerning bullying, but most do not identify categories that can be singled out.
“A lot of times these protections aren’t afforded to LGBT students,” Boddie said. “Right now, in Georgia, (the law) just says, ‘Students will not be discriminated against.’ It doesn’t say which students, because of your ethnicity, because of your religion, it doesn’t say any of that.”
But specifically listing categories of students has proven controversial. A law specifically covering cyberbullying in Florida was passed in 2007, but it took three years, in part because some groups advocated strongly that categories should be listed, and others were opposed, saying that just forbidding discrimination and harassment in general without listing categories was enough. The Florida law does not include categories.
The Bulloch County school system does not single out categories of students in its antibullying policy. Officials note that any category — in particular, sexual orientation — is a sensitive issue that can trigger strong reactions among parents.
“We cannot control the private attitudes, behaviors, or beliefs of each home in our community; however, on our campuses, we promote respect for all persons and strive to create a positive environment for all students to learn safely,” Bulloch County Schools Superintendent Charles Wilson said. “This is a priority of our Board of Education, myself, our principals and our faculty. When any individual feels threatened or has concerns, we encourage them to immediately seek the help of a faculty member.”
Boddie said he understands the difficult position the school system is in, but he hopes that someday there can be more open discussion. He said that growing up in Milledgeville, in the years before he came out as gay, he was bullied. But he said it was far worse for students who weren’t gay but were bullied by students who accused them of that orientation.
“I’ve seen kids be teased that weren’t gay, but teased like they were gay. It’s horrible — way worse than it is for me,” he said. “At least for me, maybe two years later, I might come out and be gay, and everything would kind of slow down a bit. But for a student like that who isn’t, it may never slow down. They’ll always get it.”
Boddie added that he is impressing upon the next group of leaders at Georgia Southern’s Gay-Straight Alliance that in reaching out to the school system, the emphasis needs to be on “respect for all people.” He hopes the alliance can work with other campus organizations and that with a broader-based coalition, the overall message of respecting everyone will carry the day.
“I don’t want anyone to be threatened by the presence of the Gay-Straight Alliance. I feel like they hear the word ‘gay’ and they run for the hills,” he said. “We’re not talking about sexuality. We’re talking about safety. I think the more we push the fact that we’re there to talk about safety, not sexuality, they will be more open to it — especially if we bring some of our other supporters.”
Jason Wermers may be reached at (912) 489-9431.