For LGBT Students, Are 'Safe Schools' Enough?

Schools must do more to celebrate and affirm LGBT identities

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In mid-August, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report that, despite its startling findings, received only a modest amount of press coverage. It included the following statistics:

• More than 40 percent of lesbian, gay, and bisexual students surveyed had seriously considered suicide in the previous year, and nearly 30 percent had attempted it.

• Thirty-four percent of lesbian, gay, and bisexual students were bullied at school, compared with 19 percent of other students, and 28 percent were bullied online, twice the rate of their heterosexual peers.

• More than one in 10 lesbian, gay, and bisexual students missed at least one day of school in the previous month because they felt unsafe.

For LGBT Students, Are 'Safe Schools' Enough? Schools must help lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students develop a positive sense of their LGBT identities, writes Michael Sadowski.

• About 60 percent of lesbian, gay, and bisexual students said they had felt “sad or hopeless” for extended periods of time.

The CDC report was based on data from the 2015 national Youth Risk Behavior Survey, completed by more than 15,000 students in grades 9-12, plus 25 state and 19 school district surveys. It was the first report to document nationally what smaller studies have been finding for years: Lesbian, gay, and bisexual adolescents are at dramatically higher risk than their heterosexual peers for suicidal thinking and behaviors, depression, bullying at school, and other health and psychological issues.

Now that the biennial national survey has finally introduced questions about sexual orientation, a change researchers in the field have been advocating for years, we know conclusively that there’s a national problem. We also know that schools across the country are not doing enough to address it.

Certainly the persistent epidemics of suicide and bullying that affect LGBT youths—most of whom, it should also be noted, show tremendous resilience—do not stem from their experiences in schools alone. Families, communities, the media, and conservative politicians send negative messages to youths every day about what it means to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. As the sector of society charged with educating our nation’s young people, schools are responsible for ensuring that all of them—gay and straight, transgender and cisgender—understand what being LGBT means beyond the slurs they might hear in the hallway or the stereotypes they might see in music videos.

For the past two or three decades, most of the work on LGBT issues in schools—if they are addressed at all—has focused on safety. Policies against bullying, the monitoring of anti-LGBT language, and the designation of “LGBT safe zones” all send a message to LGBT students that they have a right to safe space in their schools. These measures have made a life-saving difference to many, many students.

"Is a safe space in a part of the school or for part of the week the only thing to which LGBT students are entitled?"

But schools’ almost exclusive focus on safety also raises some important questions. Would we accept safety as the standard of practice for any other population of students? If a tolerant teacher’s classroom or a gay-straight alliance meeting is considered a “safe space” for LGBT students, have school officials done their job? What about the rest of the building? Is a safe space in a part of the school or for part of the week the only thing to which LGBT students are entitled? What about the knowledge and skills they need to develop a positive sense of their identities as LGBT people?

Despite the important progress we have made in recent decades in making schools safer for LGBT students—and we still have a long way to go on that front—silence is still the default in most schools. The most recent National School Climate Survey by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, or GLSEN, found that fewer than one in five students heard any positive mention of LGBT issues in any of their classes; fewer than half had access to LGBT-related library resources; and roughly half still said their schools didn’t have gay-straight alliances.

Transgender students, who are problematically still not represented in the national CDC survey, face the greatest harassment risk among all LGBT students, according to GLSEN’s survey, and there’s evidence that their risk for suicide exceeds even that of lesbian, gay, and bisexual youths.

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The current national debate about transgender students’ rights seems to have reduced the issue to arguments about bathrooms, as if this were the central aspect of what it means to be transgender. The silence about transgender identity and people in schools does little to expand students’ understanding.

Fortunately, some schools and districts are moving the discourse on LGBT issues beyond that of mere safety and setting examples for the rest of the country to follow. In 2013, I began conducting research for a book called Safe Is Not Enough and found inspiring examples of teachers, administrators, librarians, counselors, and students whose work embodies this philosophy.

At a Massachusetts high school, half of all students—LGBT and otherwise—were taking a course in LGBT literature before they graduated. In communities in Missouri and Utah, students were learning how to work with elected officials on advancing LGBT rights. In Washington state and Chicago, elementary school students were learning about gender stereotypes and the diversity of families. In Los Angeles, teachers were receiving clear guidelines about respecting the rights of transgender students in ways that related not only to bathrooms, but also to their work in classrooms.

I am optimistic that there are educators all over the country who are ready to work toward a new standard, who want to make their schools more than just safe for LGBT students. They just don’t know where to begin.

If all we keep aiming for is to keep LGBT students safe, we will fall short of even this modest goal. But if we aim instead to affirm and celebrate LGBT identities, maybe we can come one step closer to creating schools where everyone can achieve to their full potential.

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