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Bullying: A Tragic Reality for Vulnerable Youth 

April 30, 2013

Ilyssa Yousem

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Nearly 160,000 children miss school every day due to fear of attack or intimidation by other students. 71% of students report incidents of bullying as a problem at their school, and 90% of 4th through 8th graders report being victims of bullying.  While these statistics are alarming, those for incidents targeting Lesbian/Gay/Bi/Transgender/Queer (LGBTQ) youth are even more so. Research shows that LGBTQ teens are bullied 2 to 3 times as much as their straight peers. According to results from the GLSEN’s biannual National School Climate Survey, 63.5% of students felt unsafe because of their sexual orientation, and 43.9% are targeted because of their gender expression. In addition, 81.9% were verbally harassed (e.g., called names or threatened) in the past year because of their sexual orientation, and 63.9% are harassed because of their gender expression. Indeed, 9 out of 10 LGBTQ students have experienced harassment at school, and more than 1/3 of LGBTQ kids have attempted suicide.

LGBTQ youth of color experience particularly devastating levels of abuse, harassment, and violence. LGBTQ students of color face unique and diverse challenges regarding victimization at school, according to a GLSEN report entitled, Shared Differences: The Experiences of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender students of Color in Our Nation’s Schools. That study found that more than 4 out of 5 students within each racial/ethnic group experiences verbal harassment in school because of sexual orientation, and about two‐thirds because of gender expression. Additionally, at least a third of each racial group reported physical violence in school because of their sexual orientation. The National Transgender Discrimination Survey found similar results. Out of the 381 African American participants in the survey, 49% reported harassment, 27% reported physical assault, and 15% reported sexual assault at school. 21% experienced harassment so severe, that they had to leave school, and 6% reported being expelled due to bias. Of the 402 Latino respondents, 77% reported harassment in school, 36% reported physical assault, and 13% reported sexual assault in K-12. Similarly, 21% of Latino respondents reported harassment so severe it led to leaving school, and 9% reported being expelled due to bias.

Even so, LGBTQ students do have legal protections against discrimination. In fact, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, along with 81 other national and state organizations, signed on to a letter advocating for the Student Non-Discrimination Act.  The proposed legislation would establish a comprehensive federal prohibition against discrimination and harassment in public elementary and secondary schools across the country based on a student’s actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.  

Additionally, the U.S. Department of Education recently issued federal guidance explaining the obligations of school administrators to address discrimination against students, including LGBTQ youth. The “Dear Colleague” letter emphasizes that Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (Title IX), 20 U.S.C. §§ 1681 et seq., and its implementing regulations, 34 C.F.R. Part 106, prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex in education programs or activities operated by recipients of Federal financial assistance. Title IX requires schools to not only publish a notice of nondiscrimination and grievance procedures, but also take immediate action to eliminate harassment, prevent its recurrence, and address its effects. Schools are therefore required to train employees how to identify, prevent, and address harassment to create a safe learning environment for all students.

With some limits, students in public schools also have the right to free speech, which means that LGBTQ youth have the right to be “out,” voice their opinion about LGBTQ issues, organize peaceful protests, and express themselves in a way that best matches their gender identity. The 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which assures that all people have equal protection of the laws, requires that public schools protect LGBTQ students from harassment on an equal basis with all other students. Additionally, the Equal Access Act of 1984 prohibits schools from discriminating against LGBTQ students who wish to meet at school, or censoring the content of speech at such meetings. For example, schools may not impose any special rules or restrictions on the Gay Straight Alliance Club that are not imposed on other clubs.

A safe and inclusive school setting can help prevent bullying. Starting in the classroom, but extending to the playground, schools should establish a culture of respect and acceptance for all students. This may include open discussions about diversity during which students and adults can discuss the unique experiences of LGBTQ youth, which can counter homophobia and transphobia. Unlike mediations where a victim is left to advocate on their own behalf, “circle meetings” allow allies to facilitate conversations which encourages children to participate without fear of judgment. Other school-wide measures which promote a safe environment include conflict resolution training, team-building exercises, consequences for students using hate-related words, and positive reinforcements for kind behavior.

To optimize results, schools must encourage all staff, from teachers to nurses to bus drivers, to actively make the school a welcoming place. This means educating adults about what bullying is. Adults must realize that bullying is not just physical intimidation, but may include verbal intimidation. Monitoring bullying “hot spots” where there is little to no adult supervision, setting rules that must be followed, making behavioral expectations clear, and helping students correct bad behavior will promote respect both inside and outside of school.

For LGBTQ youth in particular, it is important to identify “safe spaces,” such as counselors’ offices and student organizations where students can receive support from school staff and peers. Students should have access to information using inclusive language on LGBTQ relevant issues. Schools can also promote a healthy environment by facilitating access to community-based providers who have experience in providing medical, social, and psychological services to LGBTQ youth.

Such measures have shown positive results.  Results from the 2011 National School Climate Survey demonstrate the ways in which school-based support – such as supportive staff, anti-bullying/harassment policies, LGBT-inclusive curricular resources, and GSAs – can positively affect LGBT  students’ school experiences. Furthermore, results show how comprehensive anti-bullying/harassment state laws can positively affect school climate for these students.

What can be done to prevent discrimination and harassment against LGBTQ youth? Four measures can promote safe and healthy learning environments for all students. First is the adoption of comprehensive bullying/harassment legislation at the state and federal levels that specifically enumerates sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression as protected categories alongside others such as race, religion, and disability. Second is support for student clubs, such as Gay-Straight Alliances, that provide support for LGBT students and address LGBT issues in education would foster a welcoming and inclusive school environment. Third is access to training and professional development for school staff to improve rates of intervention and increase the number of supportive teachers and other staff available to students. And fourth is increased student access to appropriate and accurate information regarding LGBT people, history, and events through inclusive curricula and library and internet resources.

Taken together, such measures can move us toward a future in which all students have the opportunity to learn and succeed in school, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.

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