School Climate & Safety Opinion

Are LGBT Students Safe?

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — September 25, 2016 5 min read
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“Do no harm.” This first rule often associated with doctors ought to apply to educators as well. It is the hope and the belief that allows parents to send their precious little ones to our schools. The safety of all students is challenged when the educators in charge of maintaining a safe environment ignore or turn away from recognizing bullying when it happens. This is exaggerated for our LGBT students. When we watch the bar of how we talk to and about each other being lowered, concerns arise.

We hope we can agree than name-calling is unacceptable. That “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me” is simply not true. And for LGBT children and adults this not being true is amplified. The Harris Poll reports that LGBT adults vividly recall their experiences of being bullied in schools. Their experiences are very different when compared to non-LGBT data.

  • Social awkwardness 64% (53% non-LGBT)
  • Sexual orientation 53% (21% non-LGBT)
  • Unusual qualities such as interests, fashion 52% (31% non-LGBT)
  • Race/ethnicity 43% (33% non-LGBT)
  • Non-conformance to gender stereotypes 39% (17% non-LGBT)
  • Gender identity 26% (13% non-LGBT)

In both groups, data reveal a large number of adults who report being bullied at school. It is a concern for schools that calls for ongoing attention. Outside of our schools, our society appears to be developing or at least is exposing a growing mistrust of law enforcement, politicians, and the establishment. That frustration can boil into disrespect and often expressed in name-calling. We can expect that some parents and the children served by our schools will slip into this behavior with us and with each other. Name-calling does life-long harm when aimed at children, even if by other children. Just ask anyone who felt bullied in school.

Cyber bullying now has given rise to a sense of invisibility and anonymity. The advent of cyber communications makes the situation worse. It makes even safe places like homes no longer immune from the reach of the bully. According to the same poll:

Nearly 9 in 10 (86%) adults agree technology has made it easier to bully someone. Strikingly, by nearly 2-1, 37% of LGBT adults say they encountered cyber bullying, when compared with 20% of all adults.

The Subtle Language That Hurts
Gender identity and sexual orientation call for something deeper than taking a stand against bullying because it is something that, for many, is hard to understand. It is also caught up in a religious debate. The first thing asked of a couple having a child is, “Do you know if it is a boy or a girl?” No matter the answer, the child is placed in a category of expectations. If it is girl, the expectation is that she will look a certain way, wear certain clothes, play with certain toys and date or marry a boy. If it is a boy, the expectation is that he will look a certain way, wear certain clothes, play with certain toys and date or marry a girl. Until very recently, parents and families expected that the sex of a child’ birth would be their sex for their life. But it is becoming clear that those standard assumptions no longer exist and that places some in a state of wonder and discomfort and confusion. When those reactions interfere in the work to be done for the students served, then we have a problem.

Public educators are expected to serve every student who enters the doors, as they are, who they are. But what is one to do if who they are disrupts the educator’s understanding of how the world ought to be? Is our primary obligation to force that child back into a box of comfort for us or to make that child welcome for who he/she is? Being asked to suspend what you have believed your entire life in order to make room for a new reality is difficult. But the safety and security of all children depend upon it. For those children who are questioning their sexual orientation or gender identity, being looked past, or being bullied is damaging. Not only for the bullied and ignored, but for the children (and the adults) who watch it happen with no interference. According to the ViolencePreventionWorks.org “The Home of The Olweus Bullying Prevention Program”, website:

A single student who bullies can have a wide-ranging impact on the students they bully, students who observe bullying, and the overall climate of the school and community.

Ignoring or allowing is translated as danger. If one group is ignored or bullied in any way then all are threatened. While educators are working hard to create environments where learning can be dynamic, investigative, collaborative, and creative, these same environments must be safe for all students and the teachers who serve them. LGBT students and adults, like all in schools, must feel seen and be safe.

We Need More Than Policies
Policies and legislation may call for safe environments, but it is the heart of the educator leading and teaching students that will make the most difference. These are the skills that are neither taught nor talked about. Skills of the heart. When an educator finds their way to true acceptance and is dedicated to the cultivation of a welcoming and safe environment, there will surely be those who are not as far along. This is not similar to agreeing that there will be no name calling. It is a change of belief and that is a difficult personal journey. Whether it is visible or not, LGBT children are struggling both inside and outside of schools.

This is different from setting a standard of behavior, but it can begin there. Policies matter. Education of leaders, faculties and staff matters. The personal challenge is a real one for some. But all need to be able to look past stereotypes and see how they create the boundaries that threaten the children who are discovering that they are different from the stereotypical frames that even they have been socialized to believe. This is not only a benefit to the LGBT students in your school community, it is for everyone. When children feel threatened, learning is limited. When children become bullies, learning is limited. When LGBT members of the faculty feel invisible, learning is limited. A safe school environment is the bedrock of a community of learners.

In NY State we have DASA (Dignity for All Students), a law that protects students from bullying. But laws do not change hearts. Here is a short video from a high school in California, out of the mouths of babes.

We want students to learn and grow. We want them to be college and career ready. We need to offer them a safe place for all of this to happen. Are your most vulnerable students safe?

Tolerance.org - Best Practices: Creating an LGBT-inclusive School Climate
Glsen.org - 2013 National School Climate Survey

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.