Equity & Diversity

Report Says Schools Often Ignore Harassment of Gay Students

By Darcia Harris Bowman — June 06, 2001 5 min read
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Armed with a report that concludes harassment of gay students is a pervasive problem in public schools, the two national teachers’ unions and a gay-rights group are urging the U.S. Department of Education to step up its enforcement of laws aimed at such abuse.

For More Information

“Hatred in the Hallways: Violence and Discrimination Against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Students in U.S. Schools” is available from Human Rights Watch.

The education of many gay students may be in jeopardy because of constant bullying in school, a problem compounded by the widespread tendency of teachers and administrators to ignore such treatment, according to Human Rights Watch, a watchdog group in New York City that released its two-year study last week.

The findings prompted an immediate response from education groups. In a May 31 letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige, the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, the National Education Association, and the American Federation of Teachers joined in urging the Education Department to take a more active role in defending the rights of gay and lesbian students.

“With this knowledge, our systems of public education and policy leaders can no longer be silent, or turn a blind eye to the discrimination and harassment these youth experience daily,” the groups write in the letter, which was signed by NEA President Bob Chase, AFT President Sandra Feldman, and Kevin Jennings, the executive director of the New York City-based GLSEN.

Federal Role

“Schools are struggling to be safe places in which all students are valued, respected, and treated with dignity,” they add. “What this report makes clear is that today, yet another group of students ... are divorced from these visions of safety, equal educational access, and opportunity.”

Specifically, the three groups asked the department to act immediately on several policy recommendations from Human Rights Watch, an independent organization that investigates human rights abuses around the world. Those proposals include a call for the department to more closely monitor schools and vigorously enforce federal laws that prohibit sexual harassment and discrimination.

Lindsey Kozberg, the chief spokeswoman for Mr. Paige, said last week that the Education Department already plays an active role in protecting the civil rights of all students.

“The department does a tremendous amount in terms of providing guidance, information, and research to schools and universities to make sure they understand the laws and know how to comply with them, and this department also has an enforcement function,” Ms. Kozberg said.

Only five states have laws that prohibit discrimination against gay youths in schools, and there is no federal law aimed specifically at protecting homosexual students, the report states.

The study included interviews with 140 young people between the ages of 12 and 21 in seven states who were found through local service providers, lawyers, and gay youth groups. The authors also interviewed teachers, counselors, administrators, and parents. Based on the results of those case studies, the authors concluded as many as 2 million school-age youths may be affected by bullying related to sexual orientation.

“While we can’t say in a scientific sense that the research we did is conclusive, I feel pretty confident based on that information saying this is a pervasive problem,” said Michael Bocheneck, a counsel to the Human Rights Watch division of children’s rights and a co-author of the report.

The study, published in book form, concludes that the bullying many gay students endure typically starts at the level of verbal harassment: taunts, teasing, and name-calling. But when teachers and administrators fail to intervene at that stage, the researchers conclude, verbal abuse often turns physical.

“Teachers and administrators can address this problem early on by stopping the verbal harassment before it grows into something so big that a kid’s education is impaired,” Mr. Bochenek said.

But too often, teachers and administrators fail to put a stop to the bullying, the report says. Some fear they themselves will be discriminated against or lose their jobs, Mr. Bochenek said. Others, he said, fail to act because of their own prejudices or a failure to recognize harassment based on sexual orientation as a real problem on a par with racial, religious, or ethnic discrimination.

“Clearly, young people are getting the message that some of their peers are acceptable targets for attack,” GLSEN’s Mr. Jennings said last week. “Individual administrators and school systems are all failing to respond ... and these kids see no one in authority they can possibly turn to protect them. It sends a truly devastating message.”

Gerald N. Tirozzi, the executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, based in Reston, Va., said that his group “does not tolerate discrimination of any kind, in any form, against any group or individual.”

Policy Battleground

One way to demonstrate to all students that it’s unacceptable to bully and harass young people because they are or are perceived to be gay is to include prohibitions on such behavior in school conduct codes, anti-harassment rules, and discipline policies, Mr. Bochenek said.

But persuading schools to make those changes can be a battle.

For Gina J. Cooper, whose now 20-year-old son, Bradley Putman, was bullied throughout his 9th and 10th grade years at Somerset High School because other students believed he was gay, it took filing a federal civil rights lawsuit to change the Somerset, Ky., school district’s policies.

“The more I talked to teachers, the superintendent, and the principal, the more they just kept throwing up brick walls and trying to convince me I would have to let my son go through this,” Ms. Cooper said. “But no child should have to go through this, whether he’s gay or not. When [bullying] gets to the point where a kid wants to quit school and give up his future, something has to be done.”

The family reached an out-of-court settlement with the district in November that included financial compensation for Ms. Cooper’s son and a new prohibition on harassment based on a student’s sexual orientation.

Some school districts deserve credit for taking the initiative to end anti-gay harassment and bullying, but most have yet to take the problem seriously, said Mitch Hahn, a high school teacher in upstate New York and a co-chairman of GLSEN’s New York Capital Region chapter, which works with about 70 school districts.

“In many schools, if a student uses a racial or ethnic slur, they’re punished for that,” Mr. Hahn said. “But for some reason, ‘dyke’ and ‘fag’ and those kinds of words aren’t equated with the same level of discrimination.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 06, 2001 edition of Education Week as Report Says Schools Often Ignore Harassment of Gay Students

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