Equity & Diversity

Data Lacking About How LGBT Students Are Treated at School, Researchers Say

By Evie Blad — March 27, 2016 5 min read
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Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students are the targets of bullying, harrassment, and disproportionatelly high discipline rates at school, research suggests. But without consistently collected, reliable, large-scale sources of data, it’s difficult to track the extent of those problems or the effectiveness of proposed solutions, a group of researchers said in a briefing paper released Sunday night.

Expanding existing federal surveys on youth safety and well-being to include more questions about gender identity and sexual orientation could provide a clearer picture, write researchers Mariella Arredondo, Chrystal Gray, Stephen Russell, Russell Skiba, and Shannon Snapp on behalf of the Equity Project at Indiana University. And it’s possible greater data could help shine a spotlight on the needs of LGBT students, in the same way it has fueled concerns about disparate discipline rates for students of color, they write.

“The availability of data broken down by race and disability has contributed to an important shift in the last decade—from questions about whether disparities exist, to a focus on the development and testing of effective interventions for reducing those known disparities,” the paper says.

The researchers echo concerns I wrote about in this story about existing efforts to expand federal data collection on LGBT students. Here’s a snippet from that article:

Federal survey measures that track school climate issues such as peer victimization and disparate discipline rates don't include questions about the sexual orientation or gender identity of students. The next versions of three federal surveys will add new questions related to LGBT students, providing a clearer picture of their experiences. But those surveys will still lack the granular detail about LGBT students that they provide about other student groups."

What Kind of Data About LGBT Students Do Schools Need?

To effective track problems and advance solutions, researchers say data must be:

  • Universal: Collected in schools, districts, and states throughout the nation
  • Public: Available for scrutiny by educators, policymakers, and community members
  • Annual: Collected every year, rather than occasionally
  • Disaggregated: Available in a form that allows the data to be broken down by race, disability status, gender, sexual orientation, or other relevant characteristics

When it comes to school climate, the most widely used source is probably the Civil Rights Data Collection, released every two years by the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights, which provides statistics on everything from suspensions to corporal punishment that is submitted by school leaders and can be disaggregated by all sorts of student characteristics.

It would be difficult to add questions about sexual orientation and gender identity to that survey, researchers note, because students may have concerns about the privacy of that information or they may feel uncomfortable submitting it. They write:

The issue of [sexual orientiation and gender identity] data collection with respect to youth in schools becomes more complicated when data are individually identifiable and stored in school records, which may be accessible to a range of school personnel, as well as parents. At present, [Civil Rights Data Collection] data are generated by relevant demographic data that is stored in student records (typically pro-vided by students' guardians at the time of enrollment) and then linked to school personnel reports of meaningful educational concerns, including discipline and bullying. If [sexual orientiation and gender identity] information is to be represented in [Civil Rights Data Collection] data, a mechanism would be required by which youth can disclose their [sexual orientiation and gender identity] information.

The latest OCR data, to be released this spring, will include for the first time reports by school administrators of events of bullying and harrasment where real or perceived sexual orientiation and gender identity was the cause. But it’s not always possible to determine the causes for such peer harrassment, and the new data will not address discipline, the researchers note.

What Data Do Federal Agencies Currently Collect on LGBT Students?

The School Crime Supplement, or SCS, issued by the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice, includes questions on crime and victimization incidents that students ages 12 through 18 face in U.S. public and private schools, but the only reference to sexual orientation on that survey is related to experiencing verbal harassment in relationship to sexual orientation. It asks nothing about gender identity.

The most recent SCS will also add responses from school administrators about bullying and harrassment incidents triggered by students’ gender identity and sexual orientation. The agencies do not want educators to question students about their sexuality or gender in responding to those questions. As I wrote in my previous story:

Organizations like the American Educational Research Association supported the new questions, calling the information 'critical to the development and implementation of science-based policies and practices.' But public commenters, including school administrators, who weighed in on the additional questions, said it would be difficult to collect information about motives for bullying for the civil rights survey without also asking students questions about their sexual orientation."

Other federal data sources that ask about LGBT youth include the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, but that nationally representative data is from the 1994-95 school year. Attitudes about sexual orientation and gender identity have shifted since then, researchers note, and more current, regularly collected data is needed.

So, What’s the Solution?

Authors of the briefing paper suggest addressing the data gap by adding discipline and harassment items to existing health surveys that currently include measures of sexual orientation and gender identity, such as the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The School Crime Supplement should also be expanded to ask more questions regarding a student’s sexual orientation and gender identity, the paper says.

Even these changes wouldn’t provide the level of granular data the Civil Rights Data Collection provides, but they would be a big leap forward for researchers, the authors write.

Are There Concerns About Such Data Collection?

As with any kind of information on students, some have data privacy concerns. The biggest concerns relate to trackable data about individual students, such as the kind that would be collected by the office for civil rights if its data sources included students’ sexual orientation and gender identity. As I wrote in my story:

Although some researchers have called for including students' sexual orientation in their data files to get more timely demographic data, some advocates for LGBT students fear that could lead to administrators prematurely "outing" students to their families. And some educators have said that students aren't always firm in their understanding of their own sexual orientation and gender identity during adolescence, making it difficult to collect reliable statistics."

The paper’s authors also recommend conducting “research on youths’ understanding of and perceptions regarding disclosing their sexual orientation and/ or gender identity in data collection” to help address such concerns and to better inform research in the future.

Other concerns? Well, these are sensitive social issues that may generate some controversy. I would note this tweet by Fordham Institute President Michael Petrilli when my last story on LGBT student data ran.

Related reading:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.