“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” Years ago, an African-American pastor uttered these words encouraging people to speak up against racial discrimination. Today, I’m uttering these words, to speak up against teen bullying.

Fourteen-year-old Jamey Rodemeyer committed suicide in his New York home on Sunday, Sept. 18. Rodemeyer was just starting his freshman year of high school. For the past couple years, he complained of being bullied on the Internet regarding his sexual orientation. Parents and friends expressed outrage over harassment and gay slurs directed toward Jamey. According to local reports, one post on a social network read, “JAMIE IS STUPID, GAY, FAT ANND … UGLY. HE MUST DIE!” Another claimed, “I wouldn’t care if you died. No one would. So just do it 🙂 It would make everyone WAY more happier!”

Unfortunately, Jamey is one person on a long list of bullying victims. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, during the 2008-2009 school year, 28 percent of students between ages 12 and 18 reported being bullied in school. The most prominent form of bullying isn’t through physical aggression, but through ridicule, insults and rumors. A 2009 survey by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network reveals that 85 percent of gay and transgender high school students claim they’ve been harassed because of sexual orientation and 60 percent because of gender identity. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that everyday 160,000 kids across the country stay home from school because they are afraid of being bullied.

This is unacceptable. School is a second home — it’s a place that should be comfortable and secure at the very least, if not warm and welcoming. No child should be staying home because they are afraid to go to school, or don’t feel safe in the classroom or among their peers. There is no justification for bullying and no justification for a child feeling anxious about going to school in the morning or coming home feeling worthless.

But simply reiterating that bullying is bad won’t make it go away. To combat bullying in schools, everyone needs to play their part. And that doesn’t mean just not being a bully. It means speaking out against hurtful comments; it means watching what you say and, more importantly, what you don’t say; it means going up to the student who’s being taunted and reassuring him or her that you’re there, that they’re not alone. It’s not just about professing tolerance, it’s about empathizing and understanding; it’s about letting people in when the world shuts them out.

And it’s about making sure the right laws are in place to protect students. Michigan is one of few states that has yet to enact anti-bullying legislation. And that isn’t because the bullying problem somehow magically skipped Michigan. In January, the American Association of University Women of the University of Michigan testified on bullying claiming that in the past year, 24 percent of Michigan high school students reported being bullied on school property, and 7.4 percent of high school students reported missing school because they felt unsafe. The problem is there. Now the solution needs to be too.

It’s difficult, if not impossible, to take a tough stance against bullying without comprehensive anti-bullying legislation. Republican Gov. Rick Snyder and the Michigan State Board of Education have recommended clear legislation, but so far that call hasn’t been adequately answered. The recently passed anti-bullying bill in the State Senate attempts to address the issue but falls short. It neither requires schools to accept the outlined policies, nor does it clarify the process by which teachers should report bullying — basically rendering the bill useless. We can do more. We have to do more. And we have to demand our legislators do more.

Jamey was involved with the “It Gets Better” campaign, which spreads awareness about teen bullying via Facebook and Youtube. One of his final posts stated, “I always say how bullied I am, but no one listens. …What do I have to do so people will listen to me?” What more has to be done? How many more victims do we have to hear about before we start taking this seriously?

October is National Anti-Bullying Awareness month. Don’t let Jamey’s story fade into the backdrop — don’t let it be something you hear about, feel bad about and then forget in the routine of daily life. Speak up, do something — whether it’s watching your words, making a stranger feel welcome, cheering up someone who is down or spamming your legislators. Bullying isn’t just between the bully and the victim. It’s something we all should work to stop. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., we can’t become silent about things that matter.

Harsha Nahata is an assistant editorial page editor. She can be reached at hnahata@umich.edu.

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