The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA


November 15, 2010

Brandon's stepfather: Teach kids tolerance

RICHFIELD — The night was meant to be a chance for students to vent about their frustrations with the Midd-West School District.

The idea, said the Rev. Andy Weaver, was for young people and their families to come to St. John's Lutheran Church and express how they felt about the way school officials were handling the suicide of 14-year-old Brandon Bitner, and the reaction to it.

What happened was a wide-ranging dialogue among nearly 45 people from as far away as Winchester, Va. It covered topics including homophobia, homosexuality, the responsibility of parents to guide their children and the role teachers and fellow students should play in ending bullying.

It was Palmer Simpson Jr., Brandon's stepfather, who helped set the tone for the discussion that lasted more than two hours Sunday.

"As parents, we need to teach our children tolerance," he said.

At times appearing to become emotional, he talked about how adults sometimes speak to each other about topics they might not realize their children understand.

And while it is true the parents turn the children over to mentors, such as teachers and coaches, what they learn at home through inference has a strong impact on them.

"It's not the school system's fault," he said. "We might say we're not prejudiced, then joke about it, but the children listen to us. They pick that up. They hear it at home and think it's acceptable. Then they take it to another child."

Weaver asked Pat Peltier Russell, a counselor through the Lutheran social services organization Diacon working in South Williamsport, to listen to the group and offer guidance.

She said that bullying comes from several places, not the least of which is ignorance.

"I'm not pointing fingers in a nasty way," she said. "But it's very very scary for people to think about things that they just don't know anything about."

And homosexuality is one of those topics.

Though several at the event said Brandon was not gay, he was picked on for his appearance. A few at the forum spoke about the need to educate not only students but also school officials and school board members about the idea of sexual identity and sexual orientation.

Zack Ford, 25, a Perry County native, said he was gay and had a hard time understanding all that was happening to him growing up in a conservative area.

"I was being bullied for something I was still trying to figure out myself," he said. "So we should go to the schools, teach them that sexual orientation and gender identity exists. They need to recognize that it's not a good reason to separate people out."

Sharlene Gilman, who is hosting a forum on bullying Friday in Northumberland, said the problem is not only people's ignorance as to these issues, but also the fact they're not willing to listen.

She said much of it has to do with the national culture of what she called the "talk radio climate."

"It's all about shutting other people down," she said, citing commentators on cable news networks such as Fox News and MSNBC. "With the national culture working against you, it's kind of hard."

Others in the group complained the culture in Midd-West is keeping teachers from speaking up when they see abuse.

They argued the anti-bullying policies in place aren't working and more training should be given.

Weaver said the district's response, that there were no reports of Brandon being bullied, is not a surprising response.

"It's an institutional response," he said, noting lawsuits are filed at the drop of a hat. "I'm not shocked. Accountability needs to be with our schools, but they're not going to move forward unless people say they're ready."

Several said the district should stand up and admit its missteps.

"There have been so many reports coming forward (about Brandon being bullied), how did the teachers not see anything?" asked Jamie Maurer, of Middleburg.

Based on the discussion, Russell said those in the district need to move forward. They should talk with district and elected officials about what happened and why. And they should seek to have a dialogue, not a shouting match.

"This is not a 'You're bad and you're good,'" she said. "This is a 'We all need to talk.'"

Weaver put a point on the gathering.

"I'll ask you the hard open-ended question: Now what?" he said. "I wish I had an answer. I put it all on you now."

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