Jamie Nabozny, the student who won a landmark case against his school administrators for failing to stop his anti-gay bullies in 1996, addressed more than 100 Illinois students Sept. 29.
Nabozny spoke at a special screening of Bullied, the Southern Poverty Law Center's documentary about his case. Illinois Safe Schools Alliance hosted the screening at Waubonsee Community College in Aurora.
Nabozny, who endured years of torture at the hands of his peers, talked to students and their parents about his experiences, the realities facing young people in schools today and why he thinks punishing bullies does not interrupt discrimination.
"The biggest problem is not intolerance and bigotry," said Nabozny. "It's not knowing what the right thing is."
Nabozny stressed the importance of teaching empathy to young people, especially bullies, who he sees as victims of a culture that teaches intolerance.
It is a lesson Nabozny learned first-hand after his own school administrators intentionally ignored the anti-gay name-calling and violence he experienced in his Ashland, Wis., high school. Nabozny's peers regularly taunted him, sexually harassed him, beat him up and even urinated on him. After one particularly brutal incident during which he was kicked in the stomach repeatedly, Nabozny was hospitalized for five days. When Nabozny and his parents reported the incidents to school administrators, they responded that Nabozny could only expect harassment if he continued to act gay.
After running away to Minneapolis to avoid going to school, Nabozny decided to sue his school administrators. With the help of Lambda Legal, Nabozny won the federal case on appeal, establishing that schools could be held accountable for failing to protect students from anti-gay harassment.
Today, Nabozny travels the country speaking at schools about bullying.
Nabozny advocates against punitive responses to bullying, arguing that punishment fails educate young people and fails to see discrimination as a symptom of society's biases.
Those biases include anti-religious and anti-Muslim sentiments, Nabozny said, adding that communities who may not unilaterally agree on LGBT issues can and should find common ground in a condemnation of violence against students.
Several students and parents at the event stood to thank Nabozny and seek his advice on issues they are facing locally.
One young person reported that when she told her mother she was bisexual, her mother threatened to kick her out. Another parent vented her frustration with a local cyberbullying incident.
Nabozny said cyberbullying is increasingly common and exceedingly difficult for schools to control. But in some cases, he said, young people have crafted their own interventions, responding to negative comments about their peers on the internet.
"Right now, kids are so often not considered part of the solution when it comes to talking about bullying and harassment in schools," Nabozny said. "Kids will think of things that adults never ever would have."
Nabozny encouraged parents whose students face bullying to "climb the ladder" of school officials until someone takes the issue seriously. And he suggested that parents use words like "assaulted" instead of "bullied," which tends to be too vague to evoke a response.
For young people, he had another message: they have every right to feel safe in school.
"It shouldn't have to wait to get better," he said. "It should get better now."