Bully Pulpits

Groups are eagerly entering the anti-bullying arena. And it looks like they’re ready for a good ol’ turf battle.

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If any group of activists could avoid finger-pointing, you’d think it’d be the anti-bullying crowd. Apparently not. In October—National Anti-Bullying Month—one longtime anti-bullying activist took the fight to another, condemning it for allegedly advancing the gay “agenda” in Clark County schools.

We should’ve seen this coming, of course: the fraying of what seemed like a universally agreed-upon mission, a concept that both Lady Gaga and red states could get behind. But anti-bullying is proving to have gray areas—areas, it seems, worth fighting over.

Marvin Nash, the founder of Wyoming-based Bullying Hurts, sent out a news release Oct. 11 stating that the organizers of the Las Vegas-based Flip the Script program are using the bullying issue “as the Trojan horse to input other agendas in school systems.”

“In conjunction with Nevada-based R&R Partners and Foundation,” Nash wrote, “the development of a program titled Flip the Script has used their creative genius and superb marketing skills to introduce, as curriculum, programs whose specific agendas target LGBT and often exclude other issues of bullying.”

Flip the Script is a media campaign that encourages students, parents and educators to take a pledge against bullying, which it defines on FlipTheScriptNow.org as “ANY [caps theirs] hurtful behavior that is done on purpose to harm another person.” Its creators deny the allegation that there is a gay-specific agenda but do oppose gay-related slurs among others. The central message of Flip the Script public service announcements is that bullies act the way they do because of their own insecurities. One often-played radio spot features a cheerleader belittling another girl by saying she’s too fat to try out for the squad, but then confessing her real worry: that the girl might take her spot (“It’s what defines me.”) If there’s a gay army in that Trojan horse, it’s pretty well hidden.

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Nash is a former rodeo clown, “Starvin Marvin,” who first began using his clown character to teach kids the anti-bullying message more than 10 years ago. He and his wife Darlene sell workbooks and DVDs and organize school and community programs nationwide as Bullying Hurts. In his school assemblies, Nash compares being bullied to being in a ring with a bull, and uses the safety of his rodeo barrel as a metaphor for safety from bullies.

The Nashes agree that it’s not OK to bully using derogatory names based on sexual identity. But, they say, the bullying movement has begun to focus more on gay issues than on other reasons kids get picked on, such as ethnicity. And, they say, there’s a distinction between opposing gay slurs and teaching kids that it’s OK to be gay.

“Our concern is that the LGBT movement is using bullying to leverage their way into the schools to promote a separate agenda—acceptance of the gay lifestyle—as opposed to genuinely trying to stop bullying for the sake of stopping bullying,” Darlene Nash says. The Nashes associate Flip the Script’s message with the Human Rights Campaign’s Welcoming Schools and the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance programs, which aim to teach acceptance of gay and lesbian people.

Officials at the Clark County School District say they don’t use the Flip the Script materials in their anti-bullying programs, but they support the campaign’s mission, and a district administrator attended Flip the Script’s Town Hall Meeting in September. The district has its own anti-bullying coordinator and develops its own programs based on grade level. It supports diversity generally rather than focusing specifically on the LGBT community.

The Nashes say they’re about protecting children from bullies, not about arguing on behalf of ostracized adults, and that the anti-bullying movement should focus on kids.

“We object to [gay activists] them using something important—bullying—to get a different agenda into schools,” Darlene Nash says. “While they are convincing school districts that any bullying is gay-related, there are many children who dread going to school today because they stutter or wear braces or have a limp. The school districts are in danger of sacrificing help for those kids. That’s our issue. Bullying is bullying and has a much larger scope than gay issues.”

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This dispute was likely stoked by more than LGBT-phobia. Its roots may also be in a flooded anti-bullying market. Bullying Hurts and the Flip the Script campaign are only two of countless anti-bullying programs on the cultural forefront.

The issue surged back into popular consciousness when social networking enabled cyber-bullying and several child suicides prompted by bullying made national news. Many organizations were born, from the It Gets Better campaign, which drew participation from politicians and celebrities, to a list of smaller programs: No Bully; Bullies2Buddies; the Bullying Academy; the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program; Steps to Respect, ReportBullying.com and others.

Bullying Hurts sells its workbooks, training seminars and “town hall services” to parents, kids, school districts and communities nationwide. Its “Home Learning Edition” costs $22 and includes two workbooks, a DVD, posters and a completion certificate. The organization is a subsidiary of LRNCO, a Wyoming-based company that also sells bus-driver safety programs.

School districts are a prime market, and federal funding has been made available for schools to pay for anti-bullying programs, so some such programs rely on pass-through dollars.

Other anti-bullying programs offer their services for free, paid for by donations or sponsoring businesses, as in the case of Flip the Script. Flip the Script is sponsored not only by R&R, but also by the Caesars Foundation, NV Energy and more than a dozen media outlets. It does not receive any federal, state or school district money.

The Nashes brought their positive-message turf war to Nevada earlier this year, when Marvin rolled a clown barrel down miles of the Silver State’s highways to promote the Bullying Hurts message. They held press conferences along the way throughout the spring and summer, including one in August at the Plaza Hotel in downtown Las Vegas. Bullying Hurts had planned a conference in Las Vegas for Oct. 4, but postponed the conference abruptly in September, without offering a reason on its website.

Meanwhile, the creators of Flip the Script were hosting their own Anti-Bullying Town Hall on Sept. 26. Participants included representatives from the Clark County School District, Human Rights Campaign, Anti-Defamation League and other civil rights and civic interest organizations, and it was broadcast on Cox cable statewide.

Flip the Script supporters didn’t intend to muscle out Bullying Hurts, says R&R Partners’ director of public affairs Catherine Levy. The firm’s interest in creating an anti-bullying campaign grew out of efforts to toughen cyber-bullying laws in the legislative session last spring.

“We launched [Flip the Script] in September, and it instantly grew,” Levy says. “We’ve had people come out of the woodwork to be involved; it’s a labor of love. We are not aligned with one specific group, but with the anti-bullying message. We acted as clearinghouse.”

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As longtime activists, the Nashes note the rise in competition with some dismay. They describe Bullying Hurts as “the first community service program in the country to insert and apply peer mentoring as the foundation of instructional awareness in the education of anti-bullying in the elementary classroom.”

When a Huffington Post item said, “Thanks to Lady Gaga, Anderson Cooper and all those in the trenches, the issue of bullying is again back on the radar,” Darlene Nash posted an angry response:

“I am both appalled and insulted by this. Is this writer implying that Lady Gaga and Anderson Cooper are ‘in the trenches?’ Give me a break!! … Now, because a few famous names have jumped on the anti-bullying band wagon—are they trying to say that we will NOW take these bullying issues seriously? … Wake up America! Ask yourself the REAL reason these people are suddenly getting into the anti-bullying arena.”

The turf-war mentality behind these lines seems to contradict the spirit of the movement. Marvin Nash has traveled the nation, including many stops at Nevada schools, helping kids to think about how to deal with bullies. A principal at a Winnemucca public school endorses the program on Nash’s website. There are pictures of Nash, in his Starvin Marvin attire, rolling his barrel down highways in Hawthorne, Yerington and Carson City. He tells kids about his own experiences dealing with bullies. “I can only speak for myself,” he says, “but I got through it by using several tools … [I] did not allow the bullies to have power over me! By thinking seriously about them, I realized that they were really no better than me!”

Those last seven words show that bullying is inextricably linked with inequality. It’s all about the assumption of superiority and the assertion of power over others. So there’s no sense in turning a blind eye to the fact that some bullies target specific groups and treat them as inferiors. And if an anti-bullying campaign can help members of such groups realize that the bullies are no better than them, it’s hard to see why someone truly opposed to bullying, in all its forms, would have an objection.