School Climate & Safety

Some Breaks From Bullying, But Fewer Supports: How LGBTQ Students Fared in the Pandemic

By Eesha Pendharkar — October 18, 2022 3 min read
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School remained a hostile environment for LGBTQ students during the 2020-21 school year, in part because they had fewer social and instructional supports during a year of schooling that was a mix of online and in-person instruction.

That’s according to the biennial school climate survey by GLSEN, an LGBTQ advocacy organization.

Over the past few survey years, the organization has tracked a decline in homophobic remarks, harassment, and bullying of LGBTQ students for their gender identities, their sexual orientation, or other characteristics. This year, that decline stagnated, according to Joseph Kosciw, director of research for GLSEN.

But during the year, schools were dealing with the pandemic and a combination of hybrid, online-only and in-person only schools, and support for LGBTQ students also declined. Supports include Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs), inclusive curricula where LGBTQ students see themselves reflected in books, positive classroom discussions, inclusive sex education, supportive educators, and school policies that specifically ban the bullying of students for their gender identity or sexual orientation.

“Some of this may be related to changes in school instruction because of COVID,” Kosciw said. “So in that we’ve seen the dip, we’re hoping that schools are now redoubling their efforts to make sure to make up for the deficit that we saw a year ago in terms of a decrease in supports.”

More than 22,000 LGBTQ students between the ages of 13 and 21 took the 2020-21 survey online. These students came from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands.

More support translates to better outcomes

Research has shown that when LGBTQ students feel supported in school, they are more engaged in activities and academics. They are also less likely to miss school, more likely to get better grades, and more likely to want to continue their education, Kosciw said.

Students who had access to supportive educators, went to schools with inclusive policies, and had GSAs at their schools were more likely overall to feel better about themselves and not suffer from depression or suicidal ideation, the report says.

“That’s why it’s troubling when the supports have decreased so that fewer students have these things that have such a positive effect on their lives,” Kosciw said.

But just over a third of LGBTQ students—about 34 percent—said that their school had an active alliance or similar student club in the 2020–2021 academic year, and students who were attending school in person were least likely to have access to these clubs. In previous years of the survey, more than half of LGBTQ students had reported having a GSA at school.

More than 71.6 percent of survey respondents said that their classes did not include any LGBTQ topics in class. Students who attended online or hybrid school were more likely to see positive representations of LGBTQ students in curriculum, more likely to have assigned reading about LGBTQ topics, and more likely to have inclusive sex education compared with in-person students, according to the survey results.

Some remote students got a break from harassment

The kind of harassment students faced also differed based on how they attended school.

“Students who were in online-only instruction obviously weren’t having experiences of in-person, verbal harassment, and physical assault, so that is in some ways a benefit that they weren’t having in-person instruction,” Kosciw said. “Many still experienced online harassment, but that was not as common as students who were in person experiencing victimization.”

LGBTQ students often avoid bathrooms, school buses, and hallways, where there’s no supervision by educators, in fear of verbal or physical bullying, he said. Because that was no longer a factor for online-only students, school was also safer for them.

But online schooling is not the solution for LGBTQ students to feel safer, Kosciw said. The solution is committing to supports that have proven effective.

“Online school might have been safer because you weren’t being physically bullied in school, but you may not have had the same support and have the same attachment and connection to your school community,” he said.

“For many LGBTQ youth, being in school is where they can be themselves, where they can find their friends and allies but for online learning, that wasn’t happening,” he continued, “so that they didn’t have the same ability to find and meet with and connect with their peers.”

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