A teacher whose students walked out on a recent talk by a gay activist and anti-bullying advocate defended their decision, saying that they were simply reacting to bullying behavior.
“Their only way to respond to this bully was to do what we teach our students to do when confronted by a bully – walk away,” said Rick Tuttle, a journalism teacher at Sutter Union High School in California.
Tuttle recently accompanied six students from his school to a national high school journalism conference in Seattle, Wash.
One of the speakers at the conference was Dan Savage, a gay sex advice columnist who founded the “It Gets Better” campaign to prevent bullying of gay youth.
In his April 13 talk, Savage told his audience that they should “learn to ignore the bullsh-- in the Bible about gay people.”
Dozens of students began to leave as Savage continued to mock the Bible, and he taunted those who left, calling them “pansy-a--ed.”
Tuttle told CNA on May 3 that he thinks Savage exhibited bullying behavior.
“If you single out one group’s beliefs using condescending, profane language, I believe that qualifies as bullying,” he explained.
Furthermore, he said, Savage should realize that “targeting a persecuted minority” as they try to leave the room in order “to escape that verbal abuse” is unacceptable.
Tuttle said he originally thought Savage would be speaking about his “It Gets Better” project and how students “could use their publications to curb bullying on their campuses.”
Because he knew that some of his students were Christians and may disagree with some of the things that Savage would say, he discussed with them the “value in hearing various and different viewpoints to help us develop and strengthen our own stance on issues.”
But Tuttle was not expecting the vulgar and offensive speech that Savage was about to give.
In addition to profanity throughout the talk, Savage made inappropriate sexual comments, at one point describing how good his partner looked in a Speedo and saying that if he were there on stage, the audience would have to “pry him off him.”
Such comments at a high school journalism conference “wouldn’t have been appropriate coming from a heterosexual either,” Tuttle said.
He added that while Savage has a right to express his views, he did so in a “very unprofessional, condescending way,” in a venue that was similar to a school environment.
At one point, he noted, Savage said his “It Gets Better” project, which has been supported by President Barack Obama and other leaders throughout the country, gives “the middle finger” to parents and educators who did not want him speaking to gay teens.
However the talk turned from inappropriate to “hostile” when Savage “singled out one religion and began tearing down its sacred text,” explained Tuttle.
He said that Savage had clearly “veered off the topic” when he started “squarely attacking the Bible – and by extension those who find it sacred.”
When three of his students politely asked to leave, he agreed.
“As an educator I take very seriously my responsibility to protect all students from bullying for any reason,” he said, adding that this was the initial reason that he had wanted to bring his students to the talk.
He explained that his fellow teacher chaperone escorted the three students out of the room, where they joined the other students and advisors who had left. He remained with the three other students, whom he believes also wanted to leave but felt intimidated by the crowd of 2,800, many of whom were cheering as Savage spoke.
Tuttle described his students as “pretty well shell-shocked” after the speech.
In discussions after the event, he and his students agreed that Savage could have spoken against bullying “in a more professional, appropriate way,” without attacking religion and using bullying tactics himself.
“Unfortunately, that’s not the direction the speech went,” he said.
Corrected at 9:30 a.m. MST on May 7, 2012: article incorrectly described the national high school journalism conference as taking place at Elmhurst College, Illinois. The April 13 event took place in Seattle, Washington.