A growing body of research tells us that teachers, school administrators, and elected officials have a major influence on the way lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, or LGBT, youths are treated at school, as reported in “Safe Schools Policy for LGBTQ Students” in a recent issue of the Social Policy Report, published by the Society for Research in Child Development. Schools that take explicit action to prevent bullying based on race, gender, or sexuality go a long way toward creating a positive climate for all students. Educators can create a safe environment for those students at risk of being bullied if we lay the legal groundwork.
I recently heard the story of Kim, a principal at a culturally diverse urban middle school, who did not have gay bullying on her mind when she became a principal a few years ago. But then a mother expressed concern about her son’s stress level over being the subject of gay-related teasing at the school. Because Kim had the advantage of working in a district with a policy that explicitly forbids gender-based discrimination, she was able to be proactive.
Kim supported the expansion of her school’s Gay-Straight Alliance, including a hallway poster campaign with messages that took on anti-gay slang like “that’s so gay.” She organized a parent committee that ultimately created community buy-in, helping her launch inclusive after-school sports and activities, and establish teacher-mentors to provide extra support for students. Two years later, the same boy is occasionally teased for being perceived to be gay, but he now feels safe and welcome in his classrooms and the hallways. The student, who doesn’t identify as LGBT, knows his school supports him.
Some education officials, from classroom teachers all the way up to district-level administrators, have tried to remain neutral to avoid conflict within the school community, but this strategy does not promote a welcoming school environment.
Some have argued that challenging homophobia is an infringement on religious beliefs, and yet there is good evidence that students are able to distinguish between their personal values and a shared ethic of tolerance and inclusion. In other words, students can have a personal or family moral conviction that opposes homosexuality, and still be respectful and inclusive of their LGBT peers.
Over a decade of research shows that general nondiscrimination and anti-bullying laws and policies are not as effective at curbing discriminatory bullying if they don’t specifically enumerate status characteristics, such as race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and gender identity.
There are educators who are calling on Congress to pass legislation that evens the score by providing national standards to establish safer schools. Two such bills, the Safe Schools Improvement Act and the Student Non-Discrimination Act, continue to languish in Congress.
Youth suicides prompted by anti-gay bulling have brought unprecedented public attention to LGBT school safety. And while we need to make sure every individual student is safe, a decade of research shows that the problem of discrimination and harassment in schools needs to be addressed through policy. It is time to focus on state laws, and school and district policies that can make our schools safer for all children.