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School Psychologists’ Contributions to Creating Safe Schools for GLBTQ Youth

By Kate Mc Gravey

The needs of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, and questioning (GLBTQ) students are often not met in our nation’s schools. When I researched evidencebased interventions to help students who are questioning their sexuality or gender, I realized that many teachers, school psychologists, counselors, and other school personnel are not only uncomfortable broaching the topic in schools, but also unaware of the growing need to have services for this group of students (Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network [GLSEN], 2008). Because so many students regularly hear antigay remarks at school, it is important for teachers and educators to know what to do when this happens in the classroom or on school grounds.

Statistics and Risk Factors

According to a GLSEN (2008) survey, 75% of our nation’s teachers are not educated about GLBTQ students and the factors that place them more at risk for bullying, harassment, and suicide, among other things, compared to their heterosexual peers. The survey found that an astonishing 90% of teens hear antigay remarks at school on a regular basis; therefore, many teens who are questioning their sexuality feel unsafe at school and question whether their teachers and counselors know how to handle situations in which sexuality is brought up (GLSEN, 2008).

NASP Position Statement

NASP supports that all students should have equal access to education and mental health in schools, regardless of sexual identity and orientation. NASP’s position statement on Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning (GLBTQ) Youth (2006) states that school staff need to be aware of the issues that GLBTQ students face and that "school psychologists are ethically obligated to ensure that all students have an equal opportunity for the development and expression of their personal identity in an environment free from discrimination, harassment, violence, and abuse"(para. 1). Advocacy and education are the keys to reducing violence, aggression, harassment, and abuse that GLBTQ students face.

NASP advocates for the inclusion of the following four steps in any plan designed to reduce GLBTQ harassment:

  • Establish and enforce a nondiscrimination policy that applies to all students.
  • Educate students and staff on the issues that GLBTQ students face.
  • Directly intervene with those who harass and discriminate against others.
  • Promote societal and familial attitudes and behaviors that affirm the dignity and rights within the educational environments of GLBTQ youth (NASP, 2006).

How Educators Can Help

Students feel safe when they are supported. If GLBTQ issues are never brought up in schools in a way that normalizes nonheterosexuality, GLBTQ students are likely to feel ostracized. To encourage acceptance, teachers should integrate nonheterosexual figures into their curricula. Another simple change that educators can make is being very careful about the language they use when it comes to gender and stereotypes.

In order to ensure that GLBTQ students feel safe in school, there should be a specific plan for teachers and students to follow if they hear antigay harassment, hate labels, or slurs. According to the GLSEN (2008) survey, in schools where there was an antibullying policy that included protections based on sexual orientation or identity, students experienced lower levels of victimization and were more likely to report that staff intervened when hearing antigay remarks. Additionally, the Safe Schools Coalition (2005) suggests that two steps should be taken when antigay harassment occurs in the classroom. Teachers should stop the behavior, then educate. By making it clear that harassment will not be tolerated in the classroom, teachers will prevent future instances from happening as frequently. Additionally, by educating students about why GLBTQ harassment will not be tolerated and why being GLBTQ is not something that is cause for teasing, educators are more likely to change the way that students think about this type of harassment (Safe Schools Coalition, 2005).

How Graduate Students and School Psychologists Can Facilitate Change

Graduate students are in a unique position to share new research and advocate for GLBTQ youth. Although issues regarding GLBTQ students are often seen as a controversial topic that should not be discussed in schools, graduate students who have the support of their universities and supervisors can go into field placements and internships with a fresh perspective. Moreover, students can research the topic further and use existing studies to educate others in order to emphasize their support for GLBTQ students.

In addition to graduate students, school psychologists need to be aware of the issues that GLBTQ students face and should do their part in changing the culture of schools to be more accepting of all students. School psychologists are ethically obligated to make sure that all students can develop their identities without fear of being harassed or abused (NASP, 2006). Since GLBTQ students are at such a high risk for harassment, school psychologists need to raise awareness of the issues in their schools and educate the staff as much as they can. Ways to raise awareness are posting safe space stickers in doorways and hanging posters in office spaces. School psychologists can also order The Survival Kit at the Trevor Project website and may wish to put on the workshop to a group of students and staff at their schools. The workshop comes with a guide that includes icebreaker activities, questions to ask students, and topics to touch on during the presentation. Posters, stickers, and workshop materials are available for free to all educators at www.thetrevorproject.org.

My Experiences And Perspectives

As a graduate student, I have had the opportunity to use my research to educate school professionals locally, and I have also been able to reach a broader audience at the past two NASP conventions. In 2010, my classmate, Jaclyn Kinsman, and I presented a plan for creating safe schools. Many of the participants e–mailed me after returning from Chicago and asked for our PowerPoint presentation. A few commented that they were using the information in their own graduate research and one school psychologist later e–mailed me to tell me that while she did not feel like an expert on GLBTQ student issues, she felt much more confident when one of her students came out to her and asked her for help. In 2011, Jaclyn and I presented a miniskills workshop on The Trevor Project. The presentation focused on raising awareness of the high risk of suicide among the GLBTQ population and taught participants how to use The Trevor Project in their own schools. During most of the presentations, audience members were willing to listen and accept this topic as one that needs to be addressed. The school psychologists at the NASP 2010 presentation were especially interested in the topic and had a lot of questions and comments to add to the discussion. However, some were quite nervous about bringing such a controversial topic back to their schools. Those that were from very conservative communities also questioned how to deal with parents and staff members who felt the topic was not appropriate for schools. In response, my copresenter and I encouraged those who were fearful about the reactions from their communities to remember their commitment to all students and to educate school personnel about the reasons these students need to be protected. The issue is not really about their sexuality; it is about their safety.

My copresenter and I outlined a specific program of service at NASP 2010 that was quite similar to the recommendations made by NASP’s position statement. The program specifically included the following:

  • Educate teachers about the risk factors that GLBTQ students face.
  • Educate students about the issues that GLBTQ students face.
  • Institute a district–wide antidiscrimination policy that specifically addresses GLBTQ students/staff.
  • Create a Gay–Straight Alliance (GSA).

Conclusion

Given recent tragedies (including the suicides of 15–year–old Justin Aaberg of Minnesota and 13–year–old Seth Walsh of California) that involved harassment centered around sexual identity and orientation, now is the perfect time for graduate students to begin learning about the ways that school psychologists can help prevent bullying. Students and school psychologists can learn more by reading research and information from GLSEN, The Trevor Project, NASP, and The Safe Schools Coalition. School psychologists and graduate students need to be aware of the issues that GLBTQ students face in order to create safer schools and advocate for the needs of all students.

References

Frankowski, B. L. (2004). Sexual orientation and adolescents. Pediatrics, 113(6), 1827–1832.

Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network. (2008). 2007 National School Climate Survey: Nearly 9 out of 10 LGBT students harassed. Retrieved from http://www.glsen.org/cgibin/iowa/all/library/record/2340.html?state=research&type=research

National Association of School Psychologists. (2006). Position statement on gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (GLBTQ) youth (formerly sexual minority youth). Retrieved from http://www.nasponline.org/about_nasp/pospaper_glb.aspx

Safe Schools Coalition. (2005). An educator’s guide to intervening in anti–gay (LGBTQ) harassment. Retrieved from http://www.safeschoolscoalition.org/guide_educator_interveneharass2005NAT.pdf

Suggested Resource

Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network. (2010). Safe space kit: Guide to being an ally to LGBT students. Retrieved from http://www.glsen.org/cgi-bin/iowa/all/library/record/1641.html?state=tools&type=educator


Kate McGravey is a school psychologist in the Boston Public Schools. She is currently working on her doctorate in school psychology at the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology.