Beyond Bullying: Making Schools Safe for LGBTQ Students

In many significant ways, LGBTQ social acceptance has mainstreamed in American culture. Same-sex marriage is legal, TV shows and movies challenge old stereotypes, and youth regularly come out at younger ages.

Gay-straight alliances like the Lambda Law Society (LLS) at St. Thomas University’s School of Law promote awareness of LGBTQ legal issues and offer mentorship and networking opportunities for student members of all sexual orientations.

But not all educational institutions have or support such groups. For youth who are or are perceived to be LGBTQ, the possibility of bullying and discrimination at school persists. Those students report significantly higher rates of feeling unsafe at school, having been threatened with a weapon at school, or being depressed, according to the California Health Kids Survey.

We spoke with Jenny Betz, who is director of education and youth programs at the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) and also sits on the International Bullying Prevention Association (IBPA) board, about how educators can create safe schools for all students, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, and expression. This interview has been edited for clarity and space.

Is there an increase in the amount of bullying that’s going on, or are we recognizing it and discussing it in different ways than say a generation or two used to?

We’re seeing rates of the reports of bullying increasing. I think it does speak to the increased awareness of the issue. And also that as people—educators and students and community members and families—learn more about bullying and the scary consequences of bullying, that sometimes we may actually lump things that aren’t bullying into that category as well.

We need to be careful to make sure that we are calling things bullying that really are such. There can be conflicts or mean behavior that may not fit into the bullying category and so may need a different solution or intervention.

In generations past, there was more of this idea that kids will be kids. Everyone got bullied. It doesn’t have to be that way. No one should have to go through a traumatic experience to somehow be stronger on the other end. We can provide respectful and meaningful and safe environments for students to learn in.

Does bullying always have its roots in bias, or are kids sometimes just being mean?

A few things make [bullying] different than just conflict. One is that it’s intentional to cause some sort of either physical or emotional harm, that it is often repeated, or has the potential to be repeated.

Then there’s a power imbalance. Stereotypically, we think of the bully being bigger, and older, and mean, and picking on the smaller student, or a student who has more social power.

If we look at bias and discrimination in our world, we see what categories of folks face that most here in the U.S. We’re talking about people of color, women, LGTB people, people with less money, that when that’s in our society, that trickles into the school as well. [It] becomes about social identities and “I’m in the more privileged group, and so therefore I can have this role of victimizing you,” and it reflects what’s going on in a larger societal context. When that happens, it’s all the students around them who may identify the same as them, or look like them, or think that they’re going to be next, because that student is being targeted for something that they also have.

Your newest report, ‘From Statehouse to Schoolhouse: Anti-Bullying Policy Efforts in U.S. States and School Districts,’ looks at the anti-bullying policies of every U.S. school district, and talks about the importance of explicit protections for LGBT students. Can you talk a bit about having that codified and explicit, both for educational staff as well as students?

Our research has shown over more than 10 years that there are four main interventions that seem to make the biggest improvement in school climate and the experiences of LGTB used in schools:

  1. Having supportive educators that will stand up, that will intervene, that students can go to if the need someone.
  2. Having Gay-Straight Alliances or similar clubs where students can learn leadership skills, have a safe place to go, talk to other students.
  3. Having inclusive curriculum, where LGTB issues and themes are included in a way that LGBT students can see themselves reflected in that, and that also all the other students can learn about the existence of LGBT people.
  4. Enumerated policies, both anti-bullying policies, which are about student-to-student contact, and antidiscrimination or nondiscrimination policies, which is about the school’s role in treating students fairly.

Often times, unless the policy is actually enumerated by categories that include sexual orientation and gender identity, they’re much less impactful and effective. Having those categories enumerated means that educators who absolutely do want to be supportive allies to LGBT have the legal and institutional backing to do so.

When you don’t have those categories listed, sometimes what happens is that we may then talk about bullying, but we’re not going to talk about bullying of LGBT students because that’s not in the policy. It’s important to be very specific and intentional. That’s both shown in individual stories of young people and educators, but also in the research.

What are the most common challenges and questions that educational leaders ask you about?

The vast majority of educational leaders want to do the right thing, and are mostly coming to us because they aren’t sure what to do in a situation.

A few big things stand out. One is curriculum. That is a challenge for schools, I think mostly because they’re afraid of community and parent pushback, which they may or may not actually get. But that comes from a place of fear.

We also hear a lot about how to support GSAs, Gay-Straight Alliances, and knowing that students have a legal right to start and lead Gay-Straight Alliances as long as the school has any other extracurricular clubs, that’s specifically for public schools or schools getting federal funding.

The other thing that we’re hearing a lot about is around supporting transgender students that are in their schools, and also students that are transitioning. More and more young people are coming out and transitioning, and being open about their gender identity earlier. Schools are having to figure out what that means, and what they’re going to do. That’s the biggest hot button and growth issue.

What advice do you have for educators at a school without clear policies in place, and who are trying to support kids who are coming out or identifying as transgender?

Students legally have the right to keep that information private. Even if some school leaders know in order to be supporting that student, that doesn’t mean that they have the right to tell other teachers or other students. It’s a respect issue.

Transgender students [and] gender-nonconforming students are protected under Title IX, so they may not be discriminated against. It’s an obligation to make sure that schools use the names and pronouns that the student identifies with, that they are able to use facilities and any other learning moments that are gender segregated, that they are allowed to go and be with students that they identify with, and [that] the students have the self-determination to say who they are, and be who they are. And have that respected and reflected in the school, and that they’re safe in doing so.

Some leaders and educators have said, “Well, we don’t have to do this, this is too much,” or “Why should we support these students?” or “It’s too hard for us.” [Title IX] made it very, very clear that it’s not an option to say, “We just don’t feel like supporting these students.” It absolutely is their obligation as schools to support and protect all students, and that includes, very specifically, transgender students and students who don’t conform to traditional gender roles or expectations.

Does the Principal’s Perspective report from 2007 still stand up for the most part?

I think it still stands. More and more principals and administrators are aware of the issues and want to be supportive. We’ve seen a lot of growth in terms of schools supporting LGBT students and issues. There have also been new laws. Many more states now have inclusive policies at the state level.

Educational leaders, principals, and administrators have the ultimate potential to ensure that climates at their schools are not just safe physically, but affirming and welcoming and respectful for everyone involved. If they’re not addressing that part, then the students aren’t going to be learning to their potential. It comes from the top. And with their leadership and modeling of that type of view of education, that everyone matters, that all students have the right to come to school, be themselves, and participate in the educational environment, and learn and grow. If we could have more of our leaders to do that, we could really change everything.

Rebecca L. Weber is a journalist who covers education, the arts, the environment, and more for the New York Times, CNN, USA Today, and other publications. Visit her online at or on Twitter @rebeccalweber.

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