It’s more than just bullying…
Bullying of LGBTQ students leads to discrimination and the denial of equal access to public education.
A student must feel safe in a school in order to fulfill his or her full academic potential.
Adolescence is writhed with change. A complex array of physical, mental, emotional, and social changes enwraps the adolescent brain within a tangled web of uncertainty. Consequently, the adolescent brain, which is consequently still “under construction”, is charged with the responsibility to process change in all forms as either eustress (good stress) or distress (bad stress). Herein lies the problem. An adolescent brain that is in the midst of development and change can be easily overwhelmed by the complex processes of stress reactivity, coping, and recovery in response to change. Thus, causing adolescence to be a life stage that is synonymous with stress.
In fact, a 2014 study conducted by the American Psychological Society revealed that teens report “stress at levels far higher than what they believe is healthy and their reported stress levels are even higher during the school year. Meanwhile, teens report that stress is having an impact on their performance at home, work and school.” Researchers asked teens to report on their experiences with stress within the most recent month. The results are alarming:
- Forty percent of teens report feeling irritable or angry and 36 percent report feeling nervous or anxious.
- Almost one-third (32 percent) of teens say stress makes them feel as though they could cry.
- Many teens report feeling overwhelmed (31 percent) and depressed or sad (30 percent) as a result of stress.
- More than one-third of teens report fatigue/feeling tired (36 percent) and having lain awake at night because of stress (35 percent).
- Nearly one-third of teens (32 percent) say they experience headaches, 26 percent report changes in sleeping habits, and 21 percent say they experience upset stomach or indigestion as a result of stress.
- Nearly one-quarter of teens (23 percent) have skipped a meal because of stress.
Now, imagine the additional strains that stress reactivity, coping, and recovery processes place on the brain of an LGBT adolescent in which one’s school climate is unwelcoming, hostile, and unsafe. Many of the common stressors of adolescence are significant enough to cause distress. For LGBT adolescents, common stressors are compounded by additional minority-related stressors. These include both stressors in the environment, such as prejudicial events, discrimination, and violence, and internal stressors, including expectations of rejection, concealment, and internalized homophobia. Data from GLSEN’s 2015 National School Climate Survey, The Experiences of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Youth in Our Nation’s Schools indicates that for many LGBT adolescents, school is a hostile environment.
- 57.6% of LGBTQ students felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation, and 43.3% because of their gender expression.
- 31.8% of LGBTQ students missed at least one entire day of school in the past month because they felt unsafe or uncomfortable, and a tenth (10.0%) missed four or more days in the past month.
- Over a third avoided gender-segregated spaces in school because they felt unsafe or uncomfortable (bathrooms: 39.4%; locker rooms: 37.9%).
- Most reported avoiding school functions and extracurricular activities (71.5% and 65.7%, respectively) because they felt unsafe or uncomfortable.
Harassment and Assault at School
- The vast majority of LGBTQ students (85.2%) experienced verbal harassment (e.g., called names or threatened) at school based on a personal characteristic, most commonly sexual orientation (70.8% of LGBTQ students) and gender expression (54.5%).
- 27.0% of LGBTQ students were physically harassed (e.g., pushed or shoved) in the past year because of their sexual orientation and 20.3% because of their gender expression.
- 13.0% of LGBTQ students were physically assaulted (e.g., punched, kicked, injured with a weapon) in the past year because of their sexual orientation and 9.4% because of their gender expression.
- 48.6% of LGBTQ students experienced electronic harassment in the past year (via text messages or postings on Facebook), often known as cyberbullying.
- 59.6% of LGBTQ students were sexually harassed (e.g., unwanted touching or sexual remarks) in the past year at school.
- 57.6% of LGBTQ students who were harassed or assaulted in school did not report the incident to school staff, most commonly because they doubted that effective intervention would occur or the situation could become worse if reported.
- 63.5% of the students who did report an incident said that the school staff did nothing in response or told the student to ignore it.
Anti-LGBT Remarks at School
- Almost all of LGBTQ students (98.1%) students heard “gay” used in a negative way (e.g., “that’s so gay”) at school; 67.4% heard these remarks frequently or often, and 93.4% reported that they felt distressed because of this language.
- 95.8% of LGBTQ students heard other types of homophobic remarks (e.g., “dyke” or “faggot”); 58.8% heard this type of language frequently or often.
- 95.7% of LGBTQ students heard negative remarks about gender expression (not acting “masculine enough” or “feminine enough”); 62.9% heard these remarks frequently or often.
- 85.7% of LGBTQ students heard negative remarks specifically about transgender people, like “tranny” or “he/she;” 40.5% heard them frequently or often.
- 56.2% of students reported hearing homophobic remarks from their teachers or other school staff, and 63.5% of students reported hearing negative remarks about gender expression from teachers or other school staff.
Discriminatory School Policies and Practices
- 8 in 10 LGBTQ students (81.6%) reported that their school engaged in LGBT-related discriminatory policies or practices, with two-thirds (66.2%) saying that they personally experienced this anti-LGBT discrimination. Almost three-fourths (74.0%) said other students had experienced these policies and practices at school.
- 29.8% of students reported being disciplined for public displays of affection that were not disciplined among non-LGBTQ students.
- 22.2% of students had been prevented from wearing clothes considered inappropriate based on their legal sex.
- 16.7% of students were prohibited from discussing or writing about LGBT topics in school assignments, and 16.3% were prohibited from doing so in school extracurricular activities.
- 15.6% of students were prevented from attending a dance or function with someone of the same gender.
- 14.1% of students were restricted from forming or promoting a GSA.
- 13.2% of students were prevented from wearing clothing or items supporting LGBT issues.
- 10.8% were prevented or discouraged from participating in school sports because they were LGBT.
- 3.5% of students reported being disciplined for simply identifying as LGBT.
- Some policies particularly targeted transgender students:
- 50.9% of transgender students had been prevented from using their preferred name or pronoun (19.9% of LGBTQ students overall);
- 60.0% of transgender students had been required to use a bathroom or locker room of their legal sex (22.6% of students overall); and
- 71.2% of LGBTQ students reported that their schools engaged in some form of gendered practice in school activities.
- 53.8% reported that their school had gender-specified honors at school activities, such as homecoming courts.
- 36.3% reported that their school required gendered attire at a school graduation and 31.8% for school photographs.
Protections for LGBTQ Students
Many states have legislation protecting the rights of LGBTQ students. The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination protects all public-school students who belong to or are perceived to belong to a protected group. In New Jersey, schools are prohibited from discriminating against students based on…sexual orientation, gender identity or expression…; and requires covered schools to take appropriate action to prevent and remediate discrimination against a student because of his or her actual or perceived…sexual orientation, gender identity or expression…
New Jersey Antibullying Bill of Rights Act
New Jersey also protects LGBTQ students through enforcement of the New Jersey Antibullying Bill of Rights Act. As per the New Jersey Antibullying Bill of Rights Act, “Harassment, intimidation or bullying means any gesture, any written, verbal or physical act, or any electronic communication, whether it be a single incident or a series of incidents, that is reasonably perceived as being motivated either by any actual or perceived characteristic, such as race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, and expression, or a mental, physical or sensory disability, or by any other distinguishing characteristic, that takes place on school property, at any school-sponsored function, on a school bus, or off school grounds as provided for in section 16 of P.L.2010, c.122 (C.18A:37-15.3), that substantially disrupts or interferes with the orderly operation of the school or the rights of other students and that:
a. a reasonable person should know, under the circumstances, will have the effect of physically or emotionally harming a student or damaging the student’s property, or placing a student in reasonable fear of physical or emotional harm to his person or damage to his property;
b. has the effect of insulting or demeaning any student or group of students; or
c. creates a hostile educational environment for the student by interfering with a student’s education or by severely or pervasively causing physical or emotional harm to the student.”
Far too many schools nationwide are hostile environments for a distressing number of LGBTQ students, the overwhelming majority of whom routinely hear the anti-LGBT language and experience victimization and discrimination at school. LGBTQ students need the adult-members of the school community to champion efforts to ensure that the schoolhouse is free from the anti-LGBT language and discriminatory practices that disenfranchise LGBTQ students.
Be a Champion!
LGBTQ students need champions within the school community to serve as advocates and change agents. The wheels of culture change turn slowly. With persistence, perseverance, and endurance, public schools across the nation can be free from the harassment, intimidation, and bullying of LGBTQ students. School leaders must embrace their LGBTQ students and afford them with the same protections as all protected groups. They must champion efforts to ensure that schools are safe, civil, and conducive learning environments for all students regardless of gender identity, gender expression, or sexual orientation.
After all, “The culture of any organization is shaped by the worst behavior the leader is willing to tolerate.” (Steve Gruenert and Todd Whitaker, School Culture Rewired.)