NC teacher says unions can help educators uphold anti-bullying policies

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By Sabrina Holcomb

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UPDATE:  Shortly after this article was posted, Omar Currie resigned. Although a vocal few raised a storm of protest, most parents and his colleagues have shown support for Currie’s efforts to stop bullying by increasing understanding. He is currently seeking a new teaching position and remains committed to addressing the needs of students in rural communities like Efland.

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North Carolina teacher Omar Currie proved firsthand the studies are right: One caring adult can make a difference in the life of a bullied child. Yet when Currie intervened to stop behavior clearly defined as bullying under his state’s anti-bullying laws, Currie came under fire for his proactive solution.

The second-year teacher recently found two of his students in tears after one was bullied for “acting gay.” Currie, considered a phenomenal educator by some of his peers and parents, decided to make the incident a teachable moment by reading his class King and King, a story about two princes who fall in love and marry, as part of a lesson on fairytales and fables.

Currie’s remedy worked: his third graders learned compassion and the bullying stopped. But the objections of a parent—who didn’t have a student in Currie’s classroom—sparked a controversy and conversation that has gone beyond the hallways of the rural school. The NEA member spoke to EdVotes about his experience and what it means to be a champion for his students.

What inspired you to take action?

A boy in my class was routinely made fun of, called derogatory names, and called girl or woman, as in “Hey girl, come here.” I told my principal back in the fall and nothing really came of it. She said the kids weren’t teasing their classmate out of malice. When I found the boy and a girl who had defended him both crying after gym class, I decided to read King and King during our lesson on fables.

Omar Currie 06.12.15

Why didn’t you choose a book that directly addresses bullying?

It made sense to me to read a book that addressed the issue at the heart of the bullying. My philosophy of behavior management is using teachable moments rather than punishment so kids can learn and grow from their mistakes. King and King had been read at our school several years previously without any complaints, and I got approval beforehand from the assistant principal. [Six of the school’s former teachers have gone on record as profoundly troubled by the extent to which Currie, who is gay, has been scrutinized.]

How did your kids react?

Most of them were excited. A few said they were uncomfortable. I told them that when we’re presented with new things it’s natural to feel uncomfortable. We talked about their feelings then returned to lessons learned. The moral we settled on as a class was to treat everyone with respect. The student who had been bullied shared the book with our reading specialist and confided that this was the first time he had felt comfortable at school. I remind myself when things get tough that was why I read the book in the first place.

How tough has it gotten?

Some of my parents expressed concern. I sat down and talked with every one of them, and they said they didn’t mind that I had read the book; they just wanted to know beforehand. But the family of a student who’s not in my classroom escalated the issue, protesting outside of the school, going on TV, and filing a grievance against me. As a result, I lost the support of my administrator, and the school has created new policies that make it difficult for educators to make autonomous decisions that that enrich learning. Every book brought into school must now be submitted for an approval process.

Does your district or school have an anti-bullying policy, and does staff get training?

We do have a policy, but we haven’t received any training. The only preparation I got was in my undergrad program where we were taught to be proactive rather than reactive.

How can the union help teachers stand up for their students?

I was told that the students’ behavior fell under the definition of bullying on the state’s bullying policy but not the district’s policy. I was also told this wasn’t a bullying incident because it wasn’t a pattern. Anti-bullying training from my union would have helped me argue the issue more effectively. Unions also need to put pressure on school districts and schools not to limit the definition of bullying and to follow through on addressing bullying behavior.

After this experience, what message do you have for your fellow educators about being activists for their students?

If we all stand together, we can face the negative reactions we get from people when we try to fulfill the needs of all our children. In this case it’s about reading literature that describes diverse families and validates diverse students and supporting colleagues who have the courage to do it.

If you could go back in time, would you do everything the same way?

Exactly. When I made the decision to read the book it wasn’t about me. It wasn’t about the parents. It wasn’t about the administrator. It was about the child, and if the child now has a safe place to be himself, it was the right thing to do.

Be a champion for your students by taking NEA’s Bullyfree Pledge. NEA’s Bullyfree Campaign identifies caring adults in our schools and communities who have pledged to stand up for bullied students.

 

 

Reader Comments

  1. I wonder that if Mr. Currie were not gay himself, would there had been such an outcry? I appreciate that he touched the hearts of the children instead of belittling the bully or bullying the bully. I agree with another comment that the woman whom started the “anti-Mr. Currie” campaign is a bully herself.

    1. For better – actually, worse – bullying is the “American Way.”
      Our kids are only imitating ADULT BEHAVIOR – THEY’RE OBSERVANT.

      Bullying is a human condition. There is NO POLITICAL CAMPAIGN that can stop it.
      It can only be stopped BY THE EXAMPLE OF ADULTS – and, from what I have observed, this is lacking.

      Try, instead, the approach of both REWARDING AND RECOGNIZING SELF-POSITIVE ROLE MODELS who SPEAK UP.
      Try REWARDING AND RECOGNIZING SELF-POSITIVE ROLE MODELS who STAND UP for ALL PEOPLE, ESPECIALLY STUDENTS. This would include COLLEAGUES, as well.

      Such examples would also include the administrator-petty bureaucrats, paraprofessionals, BOARD MEMBERS, AND PARENTS – ALL STAKEHOLDERS.
      THESE ARE THE ADULTS who support HEALTHY climates in which children may thrive and mature.

      CHILDREN IMITATE WHAT THEY SEE HAPPENING AROUND THEM.

      Positive examples would NOT INCLUDE a school, or ANY institution that is punitive.
      Tolerating INACTION – OR PUNISHING THOSE WHO SPEAK UP – sets a very poor example for students – and PROMOTES BULLYING.

      American schools – indeed, America, itself – are in a state of the most obvious crisis regarding bullying.
      We have only our politicians to thanks for this, as they SET the most public examples.

      Apparently, as a society, we have a long way to go.
      Our schools are the first stop on the road for those who CARE – AND ARE CAPABLE OF ADDRESSING THIS ISSUE.
      That’s us.

      (Revised again from earlier comment – delete priors – Thanks!)

  2. I totally agree with Brenda. I don’t believe it is hate for parents to raise their children with biblical beliefs and to stand by them. Many parents teach their children to show love and to help protect others that are wrongfully being treated. That doesn’t mean that because we show love that we Have to agree with that person’s choice. Do you agree with every choice that every human makes? Of course not… But that doesn’t mean that you hate them right? You just agree to disagree.

  3. I applaud Mr. Currie’s choice to address the heart of the bullying. The kids got it, why couldn’t that parent ( who wasn’t even affected)? Sounds to me that she was the bully – the school, Currie, and all the teachers stuck with limitations, are the victims. Makes me sad.

    1. Heartily agree with your assessment of this story.
      The one parent was the ultimate bully here.
      Unfortunately, that’s nothing new in American modern society.

      Parents are usually the biggest bullies in our schools.
      What they teach their kids at home affects us all – outside their home. Some routinely, and deliberately, poison many school environments and cultural climates in the rest of American society.
      Those who care work very hard to stand up to them – sometimes legally.

  4. I don’t think we should ever allow children to name-call or tease other children. That is not acceptable behavior and should be corrected. However, I am aware of the contents of the book King And King and the book makes the assumption or implication that homosexuality is in-born. This is contrary to many people’s religious beliefs / convictions.. mainly Catholics, Muslims, Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses, Evangelical Christians and Jews. Standing up for one child should not mean offending other people’s beliefs in the process. If the teacher’s intention was to truly teach the children respect and to capitalize on a “teachable moment” then maybe the best thing to do would be to teach the “various” views of homosexuality rather than an “implied” view that this book makes that homosexuality is acceptable by all. If we are encouraging open-mindedness, then all views should be represented. And in the midst of varied view points, there can still be respect and tolerance of differences. Teachers do not have the right to overstep parental values being taught at home. Differed outlooks is not the same as bullying and we need to show kids the difference between the two and be careful not to blur those lines.

    1. It is becoming quite tiresome to hear the “religious conviction” argument being used to justify hatred. I recently saw a great message on a marquee outside of a church: “We believe in separation of Church and hate.” I can’t believe that you are actually arguing that Mr. Currie should teach his students that “mainly Catholics, Muslims, Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses, Evangelical Christians and Jews” believe that being gay is an abomination. Don’t you realize the effect this has on LGBTQ youth? LGB youth are 4 times more likely, and questioning youth are 3 times more likely, to attempt suicide as their straight peers. LGB youth who come from highly rejecting families are 8.4 times as likely to have attempted suicide as LGB peers who reported no or low levels of family rejection. Each episode of LGBT victimization, such as physical or verbal harassment or abuse, increases the likelihood of self-harming behavior by 2.5 times on average. And you are seriously proposing that Mr. Currie should teach the Gospel of Hate: that some people do not accept homosexuality, that “their blood shall be upon them,” that they are “receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet,” “nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with man…shall inherit the kingdom of God,” or that those who are “going after strange flesh” will be “suffering the vengeance of eternal fire.” Mr. Currie’s decision to “stand up for one student” at the risk of “offending others’ beliefs” may just have saved someone’s life. He is a brave and insightful teacher – exactly the kind of teacher I want teaching my children.

    2. As long as parents continue to believe that homosexuality is “bad”, “wrong”, an “abomination” (all words used by parents in my presence), their children will continue to follow their parents’ lead and use “gay” and other terms for homosexuals as slurs. Children learn what they hear, see, and live with their parents. If you want your child to not be a bully or disrespectful, you had better start by modeling what you want to see. Perhaps a good start would be to examine scientific evidence regarding the origin of homosexuality and consider that most religions have some variation of “love your neighbor as yourself” as a basic tenet.

    3. Wow!
      “Teacher do not have the right to overstep parental values taught at home.”
      That is a pretty broad statement!
      If we admit that some parents are racist, as surely we must, and one of their parental values is racism, as surely it is, the teacher does not have right to overstep that value?

  5. Currie’s heart was in the right place, but as a second year teacher it was dangerous ground delving into homosexual relationships. There are many excellent, age appropriate books for children which address the bullying problem.

  6. Do we honestly believe that a story about two happy people would be harmful to students. My son is in 2nd grade and I welcome any literature that teaches him that all humans have value. My older son was bullied throughout elementary and middle school and I can tell you first hand how devastating it is to watch your child hurt while no one steps up to help. I wish my son had a teacher who chose to do the right thing and step in! We should applaud his creativity instead of condemning him to ridicule and resignation! When our kids get into the real world, they need to have the ability to accept others for who they are!

  7. This story is what all teachers can expect from administrators. They don’t defend their best teacher even when one stupid parent complains. Teachers are always blamed. And Anti-bullying policies are a sham. Most often the child bullied gets the same blame as the bully if a teacher sends the students to an administrator. The truth is that bullying is an important part of American society in enforcing not just anti-gay attitudes but stereotypical gender roles where boys are not allowed to show affection to one another. Zero-tolerance bully policies prove to be public relations garbage. Administrators will almost always turn on teachers–even for expressing views like this in a public forum. Omar Currie should take legal action. It’s all that our damn administrators understand. NEA’s Bully pledge just plays into the same politically correct lie. When will teachers ever have the courage to just walk the hell out!

  8. It is sad that Mr. Currie has been “bullied” by his administration and the parent whom their student wasn’t involved. Unfortunately the learned behavior to hate and bully those whom are different will continue in this district and other teachers will be handcuffed when it comes to this parent who has learned that their bullying techniques will work with the districts administration. Instead of learning that public schools treat all students with respect and equallity reguardless of race, religion, gender, or sexual orentation, this district gave up that ideal for a single persons viewpoint….not democratic or American.

  9. It is upsetting that a teacher trying to do the right thing was scapegoated by presenting a controversial story when confronting a bullying problem within his classroom. This is why teachers have unions. Making a politically unpopular decision can cost you your job when those with politics on their side put pressure on school administrations. The administrators of this school district should have backed their teacher. I hope that the NEA helps him get a new position and protect his rights.

  10. Sadly racism and homophobia may be found everywhere, but I find it no surprise when it is found more in certain areas.

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