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Efforts Build to Track School Climate for LGBT Students

By Evie Blad — October 21, 2014 7 min read
Abram Bolanos, an 18-year-old senior who is gay, left his last school after he was bullied by students because of his sexual orientation.

San Diego high school student Abram Bolanos, who is 18 and gay, said he dropped out of high school after administrators failed to handle his complaints that his peers were bullying him because of his sexual orientation.

Boys pushed Mr. Bolanos in the hallway and called him derogatory names because his friends were mostly girls, he said, and because he was careful about how he dressed.

“When I talked to [administrators], they were like, ‘What could you do differently about it?’” Mr. Bolanos said. “I felt like they were trying to blame me.”

Advocates say many lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students have similar experiences in schools. In addition to bullying, they are disciplined at higher rates than their peers, they say. But without consistent, reliable national data about LGBT students, researchers have struggled to prove the extent of the problem or to track the effectiveness of educators’ efforts to address it.

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.

New Sources of Data

Federal surveys have been a powerful tool for other student groups, said Stephen T. Russell, a professor at the University of Arizona, in Tucson, who studies school climate for LGBT students. The U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection, for example, has helped spark movements to change discipline policies by showing that students from racial- and ethnic-minority groups are consistently disciplined at higher rates than their peers.

“The problem is that getting any traction to make policy and programmatic change does require that we know something, not just that we believe it to be true,” Mr. Russell said. “If we all knew this was happening, it would be a lot easier to stop.”

Abram Bolanos walks with his cousin Briana Martinez near their home in San Diego earlier this month. Bolanos, a high school senior who is gay, said he left his previous school after administrators failed to address his complaints about bullying.

The 2015 edition of the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, administered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, will ask high school students if they can best be described as gay or lesbian, heterosexual, bisexual, or “not sure.” That survey also asks questions about such issues as bullying, suicidal thoughts, and drug use.

The School Crime Supplement, administered by the U.S. departments of Education and Justice, as well as the Civil Rights Data Collection, will ask principals to report the number of allegations of harassment and bullying that likely occurred on the basis of a student’s religion or sexual orientation. Responses to those questions are optional this year, but will be mandatory in 2015. Neither survey will ask explicitly about students’ sexual orientation, and the agencies have advised administrators only to determine if it is a likely cause and not to directly question students about it.

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.

The Education Department delayed making the questions mandatory until next year (it had originally proposed making them mandatory this year) to allow extra time to provide technical assistance to districts about how to answer the questions while respecting student privacy.

“It’s a huge step that we’re getting any data at all, because there’s been a deafening absence of information for so long,” Mr. Russell said.

Privacy Concerns

But, because students’ sexual orientation and gender identity are not included in schools’ core demographic data, federal research tools still won’t include information that could support the conclusion of some researchers that discipline practices unfairly target LGBT students and students who don’t conform to gender stereotypes.

Academics currently rely on smaller, nonroutine surveys and state-level information to demonstrate school climate issues for LGBT students.

They also widely draw from a 2010 study that relied on results from the 2001 National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, a nationally representative survey that retroactively asked respondents who were in grades 7-12 in 1994-95 about their experiences. In that survey, respondents who said they’d experienced same-sex attraction were more likely than their peers who didn’t report such attraction to say they’d faced various sanctions, including expulsion and arrest.

The longitudinal survey includes questions about sexual orientation, and administrators plan to add questions about gender identity. But some researchers have said the data isn’t as timely and accurate as other federal survey measures.

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.

But some students also experience shifts in their racial or ethnic identity as they age, Mr. Russell said, and that hasn’t stopped schools from collecting such information.

Notably lacking from the new sources of data is information about transgender or gender-nonconforming students. Student advocates say such information could help make the case for additional teacher training about gender identity and sexual orientation, which are both addressed by provisions of Title IX. Federal civil rights officials have said Title IX prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, as well as sex.

The Lincoln, Neb., district, for example, recently faced public criticism when a group of teachers, trying to understand the needs of transgender students in a school there, met to discuss materials that said sexuality and gender are on a spectrum, rather than binary. The materials encouraged the educators not to refer to their students as “boys and girls,” but to call them by gender-neutral titles like “students and scholars” instead.

“It’s our responsibility to educate each and every one of [our students] so that they can be successful and productive citizens, and to be successful with these [transgender] children, we have to understand those differences,” Superintendent Steve Joel said, defending the teachers’ discussion in a press conference. Mr. Joel said the district has no policy prohibiting terms like “boys and girls,” and that teachers were merely exploring more sensitive approaches to working with transgender students.

Many of the struggles LGBT youths face in school are the result of a lack of understanding of their needs or an unrecognized, implicit bias among educators, advocates say. For example, educators may be quicker to discipline same-sex couples for kissing in the hallway than heterosexual couples, recent issue briefs by the Gay Straight Alliance Network said. Educators may also fail to recognize hurtful language or bullying if they aren’t familiar with LGBT issues.

In a focus group, a male student told Mr. Russell, the University of Arizona researcher, he’d been sent to the office for painting his fingernails in class, something he’d seen female classmates do without consequence.

LGBT students also frequently feel they are “blamed for their own victimization,” and they sometimes fight back after administrators ignore reports of harassment by peers, the Gay Straight Alliance Network said.

Mr. Bolanos, the San Diego student, said he understands how those incidents could happen. After repeatedly staying home to avoid being bullied, he lost credits because of excessive absences and eventually dropped out, he said. Now enrolled in an alternative high school, he expects to earn a diploma in December.

“The only way I could take the situation into my own hands,” he said, “was by missing out on the education I’m supposed to have.”

Coverage of school climate and student behavior and engagement is supported in part by grants from the Atlantic Philanthropies, the NoVo Foundation, the Raikes Foundation, and the California Endowment. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the October 22, 2014 edition of Education Week as Efforts Build to Track Climate for LGBT Students

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