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Bullied no more: Former bully victim speaks out against harassment and violence in schools

Jamie Nabozny was verbally and physically bullied throughout his middle school and high school years for being gay, but he eventually fought back. Nabozny won a landmark federal lawsuit against school administrators for failing to stop the harassment. Nabozny shared his story with students at Bemidji High School and Bemidji State University on Thursday. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

For years, Jamie Nabozny was subjected to unyielding verbal and physical abuse by other students for being gay.

Students at his middle school and high school in Ashland, Wis., urinated on him, called him names like "fag," "queer" and "homo," pretended to rape him during class and when they found him alone kicked him so many times in the stomach that he required surgery.

Nabozny reported the harassment to school administrators, but they did little. Nabozny was told by one administrator that because he was openly gay, he should expect such behavior.

He attempted suicide several times, dropped out of school and ultimately ran away.

After seeking legal help, Nabozny was the first student to successfully sue a school district for its failure to protect a student from anti-gay harassment. His 1995 lawsuit settled for $900,000 and helped open up the safe-school movement for gay, lesbian and transgender students.

Nabozny now travels and speaks at schools, reaching out to kids who are bullied.

Nabozny's story has been told through "Bullied," a short documentary produced by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which students at Bemidji High School viewed Thursday. Afterward, they heard from Nabozny himself.

About 20 parents viewed the documentary Wednesday.

After the documentary's showing, Nabozny asked how many students had heard words like "retard," "gay," "slut" and "whore" spoken at school or written online. The majority of students raised their hands.

When he asked how many students thought every student walks into school feeling safe and welcome every day, almost no one raised his or her hand.

"There's obviously a problem here," he said. "There should be no reason not every single one of you raises your hand for that last question and not for the one I asked before."

Bullying has been happening for a long time, Nabozny said, but in the last few years the issue has been taken more seriously by schools throughout the country.

"Studies show the No. 1 reason why people bully other people is because they feel insecure in some way," he said.

Students who bully others or are likely bullied themselves and will take that experience with them past high school, Nabozny said.

"For someone who is being bullied, that can seem like an eternity," he said. "For a lot of them, they're thinking, 'Once I leave here, my life will be better.' You're right, it will be better, but the effects of what happen here will last a lifetime."

While his film focuses on anti-gay bullying, Nabozny said, his message has to do with the words people choose to use to harass other people, such as "fagot," "queer," "dike" and "homo."

"It doesn't matter if your target is actually one of those things," he told students. "It just matters that those are the words you know can hurt the most."

Nabozny urged students to tell school staff if they see bullying occurring.

"For a while I felt like the entire world hated me," he said. "That's not a good feeling. The reality is most students in school feel bad but don't know what to do. My classmates didn't have the ability to stand up because of the toxic environment.

"You have the ability to stand up."

BHS Principal Brian Stefanich told students that BHS staff and administration would "actively do something and investigate" students who ask them for help or bring an issue to their attention.

"I wouldn't be your principal if I didn't care about you," Stefanich said.

Paula Lind, BHS' school social worker, said she found Nabozny's talk "wonderful."

"I think it's a good way to start out the school year and let kids know they need to speak up and who they can talk to," she said. "Our staff has really made efforts to get involved. They are out in the hallways and are making more of an effort to make connections with kids."

Cathy Perry, the programs development director of Servant Hearts, a local, nonprofit organization dedicated to serving the community through projects and programs for marginalized and at-risk youth and adults, said she met Nabozny last winter and knew she wanted him to come to Bemidji as part of the organization's weeklong Respect Awareness initiative.

"The high school was really on board right from the start to have him speak," she said.

Nabozny also spoke to Bemidji State University students Thursday. Today he is speaking with students at Itasca Community College.

BHS sophomore Shelby Knaeble said she thought what Nabozny had to say was "really cool."

"I'm really surprised he stayed at that school for so long after being bullied that bad," she said.

BHS sophomore Jeanette McRae said, "I think he was really brave to stand up at trial and to stand up for himself and for everybody else. He is really strong to be able to put up with that."