We've all heard the expression: "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me." But what happens when hateful words build and multiply until they're too much for one teenager to bear? No longer an issue of harmless playground teasing, bullying can mean the difference between life and death—and it has for a number of gay teens whose suicides have made headlines in the past month.

Most Americans are now familiar with Tyler Clementi, the gay Rutgers student who took his own life after his intimate encounters were broadcasted over the Internet. Then there were the tragic suicides of two 13-year olds who experienced constant ridicule for being gay. And these are just a few of the high-profile cases that the media latched onto. How many other individuals are facing daily harassment as a result of their sexual orientation?

On October 1, 2010, Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education, released a statement in response to the recent suicides. “This is a moment where every one of us—parents, teachers, students, elected officials, and all people of conscience—needs to stand up and speak out against intolerance in all its forms…. It is time we as a country said enough. No more. This must stop.”

But how? It’s easy to point fingers at the specific bullies who drove these teens to misery, and eventually, suicide. There is a larger issue at hand, though: What should our nation's schools do about it? Are current anti-bullying policies effective in preventing gay bullying? The jury is out, and the verdict is not looking good. According to a survey conducted by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network in 2009, only 18 percent of kids said their school's anti-bullying program addressed gay bullying.

Laura Kauffman, Ph.D. says that anti-gay vernacular runs rampant throughout today's everyday speech, too. "Many students—and adults—can still be heard saying, 'That's so gay.'" Studies show that kids notice, too. 90 percent of high school students say they hear the word "gay" used as the equivalent of calling someone stupid or worthless, according to a National School Climate Survey. Kauffman explains, "Many people do not realize the negative effect of this kind of language on GLBT students. It is time to start educating a new generation that no matter what you believe, respect is a value that the school will not flex on."

Talking sexuality in schools is never an easy feat, though. Teachers and school administrators find themselves in a difficult position when it comes to sexuality rhetoric. By even having a conversation about homosexuality, educators risk setting themselves up for a harsh and angry backlash, even when they don't intend to initiate a moral debate. A Minnesota school district heavily affected by teen suicides in the past year recently found itself the target of "hate letters" after announcing that they were rethinking the school's current anti-bullying policy—which took a "neutral" stance on homosexuality.

Many schools do take the route of neutrality, deciding that it is better to steer clear of the topic alltogether. After all, by not condemning or promoting homosexuality, you cannot do any damage one way or the other. Right? Wrong—according to Annie Fox, M.Ed, a passionate educator who has devoted much of her career to fighting bullying.

Without explicitly naming the specific bullying behavior, Fox explains, anti-bullying programs simply don’t stand a chance. If kids never hear a trusted adult overtly explain that anti-gay bullying words and actions are unacceptable, they are given ample room to decide for themselves—and some kids will come to the conclusion that name-calling, teasing, and exclusion of gay peers is tolerable. Furthermore, students are less likely to report bullying incidents if it is not firmly established that gay bullying is absolutely prohibited. To truly maintain a comprehensive anti-bullying program, schools need to explicitly state that anti-gay words and actions will not be tolerated.

Although you don't have total control over the approach a school takes against bullying, don't forget about the key role you can play. As a parent, you have the power to transform the way your child interacts with others. Read on for tips:

What Parents Can Do:

  • Set Your Own Rules Build an at-home anti-bullying program of your own. To begin, make sure to define bullying for your child. According to Annie Fox, anti-bullying activist, bullying is any act that is intended to harm, debase, degrade, or humiliate. Without revealing graphic details, speak candidly about the causes of the recent spate of suicides. Explain that there are three roles involved in bullying: bully, victim, and bystander. Laura Kauffman, Ph.D., says that the bystander can play a key role in stopping a bully in the act by simply saying, "That's not okay" or "Stop."
  • Read the Writing on the Wall Just because you're not a teacher or administrator doesn't mean you can't weigh in on the anti-bullying program that's carried out at your child's school. Fox recommends requesting to read the school's anti-bullying policy. Look it over with a keen eye: It should not just be a set of standard objectives. Instead, it should consist of policy rules and the consequences that exist for breaking them. Apart from what you and other influential individuals are telling him, the school's campaign against bullying will help guide what he deems appropriate in his treatment of others—so make sure it's strong. If you have a problem with it, talk to administrators and do what you can to get the word out: talk to the principal or superintendent and rally parent support, if necessary.
  • Model Respect Parents have the first and last word about acceptable behavior. Take advantage of your unique position to model right and wrong for your child. No matter where your opinion lies on the topic of gay rights, emphasize the importance of respect and kindness. Make clear to your child that it is intolerable to mistreat anyone based on their sexual orientation. Your words have the potential to counteract the implicitly or explicitly homophobic messages that other individuals may be sending to your child.
  • Build Trust Establish yourself as a non-biased forum where your child can open up about his feelings. Perhaps one of the most significant lessons of these recent suicides is that vulnerable kids are in dire need of listeners. Be a listener, especially if you suspect that your child is at risk of being bullied, or is at all involved in bullying. If you're worried about the way your child is being treated as a result of his sexuality, it is particularly important to stand by with an open ear and open arms. Annie Fox, anti-bullying activist, cautions against prodding or calling a child out for his sexual orientation. Instead, be ready to listen when he's ready to talk.
  • Run, Don't Walk If you witness, hear about, or read anything that makes you suspect that bullying is taking place—against any child—do not hesitate to report the situation to a teacher, principal, or school counselor. Let others reflect on the gravity of the situation. It is always better to err on the side of urgency when it comes to bullying. You never know when your small suspicion could save a child's life.

For more bullying information from Annie Fox, visit http://www.anniefox.com. For additional information from Laura Kauffman, child psychologist, visit http://www.drlaurakauffman.com/.

October 18, 2010