School Climate & Safety

How Supportive Are Schools of LGBTQ Kids? CDC Data Offer a Glimpse

By Evie Blad — August 30, 2022 5 min read
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At a time when LGBTQ students are at the center of political tensions, 43.7 percent of secondary schools nationwide have a student-led organization to support them, new federal data show.

It’s unclear, however, how a raft of new state laws that have passed in the last two years—policies that address everything from transgender characters in library books to restricting classroom conversations about sexual identity—have affected school climate efforts for LGBTQ students.

The data, released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Aug. 22, was collected during the spring and fall of the 2020 school year, before many of those bills were introduced and before a torrent of conservative rhetoric and activism around issues that directly affect LGBTQ youth.

Educational psychologists say efforts like anti-discrimination policies and gender-sexuality alliances ( student-led groups that are also known as gay–straight alliances or GSAs) help all students by creating more supportive school environments.

“We do worry about changes to school efforts that might not just affect the well-being of LGBTQ kids who are at-risk, but also of all students,” said Kathleen Ethier, the director of the CDC’s division of adolescent and school health.

The CDC surveyed a sample of schools that serve 6th through 12th grade students in the spring and fall of 2020 as part of a biennial report on a variety of policies and practices related to student health and well-being, including physical education classes, drug-use prevention efforts, and sex education. The CDC first asked about GSAs in 2008, and previously only had state-level data on the issue. For the first time, the 2020 findings present national estimates.

Among the findings most relevant to the well-being of LGBTQ students:

  • The vast majority of respondents, 96.7 percent, reported that their schools prohibit harassment “based on a student’s perceived or actual sexual orientation or gender identity.” It’s not clear, though, if those respondents have actual, written policies enforcing that position. Policies in 22 states and the District of Columbia require districts to have explicit policies prohibiting bullying on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, according to a tracker maintained by the Human Rights Campaign.
  • Eighty-two percent of respondents said their school identifies “safe spaces” for students, which the CDC defines as an area “such as a counselor’s office, designated classroom, or student organization where LGBTQ youth can receive support from administrators, teachers, or other school staff.”
  • Just 39.3 percent of respondents said their school’s “lead health teacher” received professional development on how to support LGBTQ students.

A chilling effect on discussions of sexuality and gender?

The CDC report says state-level data has shown significant increases in schools that provide supportive policies and practices for LGBTQ students over the years.

But recent political pushes may change those trends. State lawmakers proposed 137 bills during the 2022 legislative session that would restrict classroom conversations and staff training about race, racism, gender identity, and sexual orientation in K-12 schools, marking a 250 percent increase since 2021, according to PEN America, a nonprofit organization that advocates for free expression.

States passed seven of those bills, the organization said in an August report. But teachers around the country have said political debates about library books, staff training, and transgender-inclusive policies have sometimes had a chilling effect on their discussions.

While the Biden administration has asserted that federal law protects students from discrimination and bullying on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, some conservative activist groups have voiced concerns about age-appropriate materials and parental consent. And some national politicians have seized on such talking points leading up to the midterm elections.

As Education Week reported in January, dozens of districts around the country have sought to avoid controversy by requiring teachers to take down classroom symbols like Pride flags and Black Lives Matter signs.

Similarly, school boards in several states have disbanded, investigated, or restricted gender-sexuality alliances after parent activists complained of a risk of “indoctrination,” the Washington Post reported in June.

Building belonging for marginalized students

School psychologists say such groups and symbols can help promote a sense of belonging and safety among LGBTQ students at school, which can lead to better engagement in the classroom and help preventanxiety, social isolation, and other negative outcomes.

“GSAs are found to benefit the wider school climate and not only those who are members of GSAs or the LGBTQ students in a school,” said a 2020 study published in the journal Applied Developmental Science, adding that the groups “may be catalysts for positive change in schools by improving school safety, inclusiveness, and student civic engagement.”

Previous CDC research showed that, in general, high school students who felt close to people at school or who reported strong virtual connections with family and peers were less likely to report mental health concerns like hopelessness, substance abuse, and suicidal thoughts or intentions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“What stood out for us was … the importance of school connectedness,” said Ethier, of the CDC. “We saw in that data how important that was in ameliorating the impact of the pandemic on young people.”

Ethier acknowledged that the data collection as a whole may have some gaps because of when the survey was issued: While some school leaders responded in the early months of school closures, others responded at the start of the 2020-21 school year, when it was more clear that school operations would be interrupted long-term. In those months, some schools limited extracurricular activities and narrowed course offerings in response to the limitations of remote learning.

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