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Communication Matters

Tips for Building Commitment to Create Safe, Supportive Schools for LGBTQ Students

By Katherine C. Cowan & Mary Beth Klotz

At our core, school psychologists are leaders in the most essential efforts to create a world in which all children and youth thrive in school, at home, and throughout life. We may not always wear an official leader hat or title, but we lead every day by knowing what kids need and why, and then working to help others understand the issues and see their role in providing critical supports, instruction, services, and connections. Our leadership derives from our commitment to uphold the dignity and rights of all children, to doing so through evidence-based practice, and to recognizing the important role of others in schools (e.g., families, teachers, administrators, and peers).

One issue on which school psychologists have been crucial champions has been creating safe and supportive schools for all students, with a particular focus on vulnerable populations like lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBTQ) students and those with special needs. Over the past decade, our work supporting LGBTQ students has gained increased visibility and effectiveness. NASP has accomplished these outcomes through the work of the GLBTQ Committee, volunteer members, and staff by:

  • Incorporating the support of LGBTQ students into official NASP policy (Position Statement: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning Youth).
  • Adopting a new NASP Nondiscrimination and Equal Opportunity Policy.
  • Partnering with leading organizations such as the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network (GLSEN) and encouraging NASP members to participate in initiatives such as GLSEN's Safe Space Campaign (http://safespace.glsen.org).
  • Featuring the latest research and evidence-based practice in NASP journals, such as School Psychology Review, Volume 37, Issue 2 (2008), “Special Series: Homophobia and Bullying: Addressing Research Gaps.”
  • Promoting the importance of safeguarding and meeting the needs of LGBTQ students with educators and administrators through articles in the National Association of Secondary School Principals' Principal Leadership magazine: Transgender Youth and Making School Safe: Sexual Minority Youth (http://www.nasponline.org/resources/principals).
  • Providing easily accessible information for parents and educators (e.g., Helping Children at Home and School III; see the handout on page 18, “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Parents and Their Children: Support Strategies for Educators”).
  • Protecting LGBT students from counseling techniques meant to change sexual orientation by partnering with the American Psychological Association and other professional organizations to disseminate Just the Facts About Sexual Orientation and Youth (2008).
  • Providing professional development at NASP conventions, summer conferences, and through the NASP Online Learning Center (e.g., Working with Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Students in Schools, http://www.nasponline.org/profdevel/online-learning.aspx).
  • Supporting key pieces of federal legislation such as the Student Nondiscrimination Act and the Safe Schools Improvement Act, which President Obama officially endorsed in April.
  • Working with the Department of Education and the White House on raising the national spotlight on the issues of safety and bullying prevention, including participating in two recent White House conferences.

Communicating at the Building, District, State, and National Levels

NASP's leadership on this issue is relevant to you for two reasons: (a) it lays the groundwork and provides resources for communication and advocacy at the local level, and (b) it models the kinds of strategies you can take to ensure safe schools for the students you serve. In the end, your work to educate families, administrators, school personnel, and students on the critical importance of creating safe, affirmative schools for LGBTQ is what matters most.

Clearly, the barriers are higher in some schools and communities. Some people are resistant to acknowledging and addressing the needs of LGBTQ students. Most people, though, simply lack basic knowledge about or are uncomfortable with the topic and would prefer it took care of itself. This sensitivity is what makes effective communications so important. And now is an opportune time to begin or enhance the conversation. Extensive media attention, the high visibility of the Bully movie, celebrity initiatives like Lady Gaga's Born This Way Foundation, and the President's endorsement of the Safe Schools Improvement Act and the Student Nondiscrimination Act create a more open climate in which to advance these issues. Following are some simple advocacy tips and resources. A number of the strategies come from one of NASP newest publications, Dignity for All: Safeguarding LGBT Students, by Peter DeWitt, an elementary school principal who has made creating safe, affirmative schools a priority as a school leader.

Getting Started

  • Become familiar with and utilize key educational policies. Every major health, mental health, and education association (e.g., National Education Association, http://www.nea.org/hcr) has official policies that clearly state the human and civil right of every student to be safe in school and to receive a quality public education. In tandem, review your school district's student antidiscrimination and antibullying policies to see if they include language protecting sexual orientation and gender expression.
  • Know the research and present the data. The NASP 2011 position statement on LGBTQ youth summarizes research regarding rates of bullying and harassment of LGBTQ and gender nonconforming youth, and the resulting increases in mental health and academic difficulties experienced as a result of victimization and lack of support in schools. A research review and meta-analysis of the effectiveness of programs designed to reduce school bullying perpetration and victimization is provided in a recent report funded by the U.S. Department of Justice (Farrington & Ttofi, 2009).
  • Assess awareness and attitudes in your school community. Listen to how adults and students respond to the issue and whether they use homophobic language, either intentionally or unintentionally. Talk to your school administrator about doing a bullying survey.
  • Understand the policy development process and timing in your school community, including identifying key decision makers. Identify specific places where safeguarding LGBTQ issues should be incorporated into school policy.
  • Identify allies who will work with you to advocate for appropriate policies and supports. This could be other school-based mental health professionals, parents, teachers, or administrators.
  • Evaluate the supports, including appropriate, affirmative mental health services available to students, and identify specific steps that need to be taken to makes these accessible and welcoming to LGBTQ students. Students exploring their gender identity and sexual orientation often need support, particularly if they are afraid of reactions of family members, are having problems at home, or are being bullied at school. Participating in GLSEN's Safe Space Campaign can help connect supportive teachers with students exploring these issues.
  • Access existing, proven resources from reliable sources. NASP keeps an updated listing of resources, legal cases and organizations addressing LGBTQ issues at: http://www.nasponline.org/advocacy/glbresources.aspx.
  • Ask your representatives to support key federal legislation by visiting the NASP Advocacy Action Center and clicking on the action alert entitled, “Support School Environments Free of Bullying and Harassment” to send a personalized letter on this issue (See http://capwiz.com/naspweb/home).

Shape the Conversation

  • Use appropriate language. Parents and school staff may not realize that it is sexual orientation, not a sexual preference. Be consistent and reinforce this in both written and verbal communications. Replace the word tolerance with words like respect and acceptance. As Peter DeWitt notes in Dignity for All, “People want to be accepted, not tolerated.”
  • Work with administrators to incorporate respectful language into all school climate and safety policies. Offer to support the principal, who as the school leader must set the overall tone and model appropriate attitudes and behavior toward everyone in the school community
  • Share the facts. Develop a brief fact sheet for staff and parents on recognizing students who might be harassed or bullied. If you don't have time to develop your own, use a resource from NASP (e.g., Bullies and Victims: Information for Parents).
  • Have conversations with parents and teachers at PTA or faculty meetings about fostering a more positive school climate. Draw information from the extensive resources from NASP's 2011 Capitol Hill Briefing on creating safe and supportive conditions for learning (http://www.nasponline.org/advocacy/news/2011/November/Congressional-Briefing.aspx).
  • Recognize strengths and resilience. While much national attention has been focused on the destructive outcomes resulting from bullying and lack of acceptance of LGBTQ youth, there are strengths as well. School psychologists can ensure conversations include information about strengths and resilience in LGBTQ youth.

Engage Students, Staff, and Families

  • Educate staff about bullying and LGBTQ issues. NASP offers the free training curriculum, Working With Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Questioning Youth, with PowerPoint presentations, notes, references, and supporting materials that can be used to lead staff development.
  • Offer to lead classroom discussions with students to share facts, answer questions, and explore attitudes. Make fact sheets and pamphlets about LGBTQ youth available in public spaces in your schools.
  • If you have openly gay students in your school, ask them if they feel safe. Involve them in the conversation about LGBTQ safeguards and in the development of school policies.
  • Hang posters and student art in the hallways that focus on diversity. The NASP Safe Schools/Respect Our Differences Poster Series is available for free download.
  • Involve your students in the GLSEN's No Name Calling Week campaign, which is appropriate for elementary, middle, or high school. For older students, encourage participation in the It Gets Better campaign, a video-based public awareness campaign designed to support LGBTQ youth (http://www.itgetsbetter.org). Have students create their own public service announcements to promote positive school climates and prevent bullying.

Key Messages

Developing core messages that are used consistently throughout all communication helps students and adults understand the important issues, shape attitudes, and adopt respectful language. For presentations or trainings, be sure to have a few data-based facts to support each message if appropriate. The following are examples of common key messages.

  • We have the responsibility—and ability— to ensure that all members of our school community are safe and welcomed. Bullying or harassment of anyone or for any reason is unacceptable.
  • Respect and acceptance of human diversity of all kinds, including sexual orientation, is a guiding principal that safeguards all students and strengthens families and our school community.
  • Discriminatory or homophobic language, even if used unintentionally, is hurtful and undermines individual dignity and should not be tolerated.
  • LGBTQ students can be particularly at risk of isolation, bullying, and harassment and the associated mental health consequences. It is our job as school personnel to recognize the signs, stop harmful behavior, and offer students safe spaces and necessary supports.
  • All students possess strengths and resilience, including LGBTQ students. By providing a safe school environment and offering support and acceptance, we can help reinforce their sense of self-efficacy and competence.

Conclusions

Children and youth who do not feel safe cannot learn and thrive. For too long, society and schools have neglected the needs of LGBTQ children and youth. In many cases, school psychologists have been the leading or even sole advocates on behalf of these students and their families. NASP's leadership and ongoing partnerships with other prominent organizations have led to numerous positive advocacy outcomes and the development of best practice resources on establishing safe and supportive schools. The growing public awareness creates a climate in which real and sustained change is possible. We encourage all NASP members to use the available resources and these communications tips to establish safe, affirmative schools that uphold the dignity and well-being of the students you serve. Links to resources referenced in this article, if not otherwise specified, can all be accessed at http://www.nasponline.org/advocacy/glb.aspx.

References

American Psychological Association. (2008). Just the facts about sexual orientation and youth: A primer for principals, educator's and school personnel. Retrieved from: http://www.apa.org/pi/lgbt/resources/just-the-facts.aspx

Dewitt, P. (2012). Dignity for all: Safeguarding LGBT Students. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press and the National Association of School Psychologists.

Farrington, D. P, & Ttofi, M. M. (2009). School-based programs to reduce bullying and victimization. Campbell Systematic Reviews. Retrieved from http://campbellcollaboration.org/lib/download/718

Related Resources


Katherine C. Cowan is NASP Director of Communications and Mary Beth Klotz, PhD, NCSP, is NASP Director of IDEA Projects and Technical Assistance and the staff liaison to the GLBTQ Committee.