NASP Communiqué, Vol. 35, #5
Bullying of Sexually Diverse Children and Adolescents
By Laura Crothers, NCSP, and Cindy Altman
As numerous students, parents, and educators can readily attest, bullying is a frequently-
occurring, painful phenomenon of childhood. In fact, peer victimization is
a widespread problem in schools throughout the United States, with approximately 30%
of all students reporting being bullied by peers sometime during their school careers
(Nansel et al., 2001). While overall school violence has declined (Centers for Disease Control
and Protection [CDC], 2006), childhood bullying has persisted, possibly because:
1) children’s and adolescents’ aggressive, dominance-seeking behaviors have not been
eradicated, but merely have changed forms from overt demonstrations to more subtle
and covert actions that are therefore less likely to be noticed and addressed by educators
and parents; 2) there is a discrepancy between students’ attitudes (which are often
against bullying) and their actual behavior in bullying situations (encouraging the bullying,
silently witnessing it, giving little support to victims); and 3) contextual factors
persist, such as poor adult supervision, unstructured, unscheduled time at school, and
educator ambivalence regarding bullying behavior (Ross, 1996; Salmivalli, Lagerspetz,
Björkqvist, Österman, & Kaukiainen, 1996).
Bullies and Victims
Although there are some differences in definitions of bullying, most researchers tend
to agree that peer victimization implies a differential power status between bullies and
their victims, repeated acts over time, and treatment that is physically, verbally, and/or
psychologically damaging to victims (Smith & Brain, 2000). Understanding the breadth
of bullying has become increasingly difficult in recent years, as acts of verbal abuse and
relational forms of victimization have been added to the list of primarily physically aggressive
behaviors that traditionally have defined bullying. Additionally, due to their access to
technology, children also may engage in cyber-bullying, wherein bullies humiliate their
victims via e-mail, instant messaging, and/or blog postings (Price, 2004).
Regardless of its form, bullying is associated with a variety of negative outcomes for
both bullies and their victims. Comorbidity exists between bullying and mental health
disorders, such as attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, depression, oppositional defi-
ant disorder, and conduct disorder (Kumpulainen, Rasanen, & Puura, 2001), and there is
a greater likelihood that perpetrators of bullying behavior will engage in criminal behavior,
domestic violence, and substance abuse as adolescents or adults (Farrington, 1993).
Students who frequently bully seem to continue to rely upon dominance-oriented strategies
as they age, which may partially explain why they tend to experience a decline in
popularity when they enter high school (Olweus, 1993). Child bullies are also more likely
than peers to have poor academic achievement and struggle with career performance in
adulthood (Carney & Merrell, 2001).
Victims of bullying often suffer from feelings of loneliness and low self-esteem
(Bullock, 2002). At school, these students are frequently fearful and intimidated, which
hampers their ability to concentrate in class and learn effectively (Bullock, 2002; Price,
2004). In a longitudinal investigation of relational aggression, physical aggression, and
social-psychological adjustment in elementary school students, Crick, Ostrov, and Werner
(2006) found that the strongest predictor of future internalizing and externalizing behavior
problems, as well as increases in these behaviors, was the combination of relational
and physical aggression. Further support for the relationship between being bullied and
externalizing behavior problems was found by Sullivan, Farrell, and Kliewer (2006), who
concluded that different forms of peer victimization were significantly related to cigarette
use, drug and alcohol use, and delinquent behaviors in a sample of urban middle school
students. For some young victims, school becomes such an aversive place that they desire
to cease attending altogether. Although specific studies regarding the relationship
between school avoidance or refusal and bullying are few, some researchers have speculated
that suffering from peer victimization keeps many students from attending school
each day, causing many young people to miss valuable instructional time, thus further
undermining their capacity to be successful academically (Buhs, Ladd, & Herald, 2006;
Kochenderfer & Ladd, 1996).
Bullying of Sexual Minority Youth
Among those at greatest risk for being bullied by peers are youth whose non-gender
conformity or sexual orientation places them in the minority, which includes those who
identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) and perhaps those questioning
their sexual orientation as well, a group of adolescents who represent about 5% of American
high school students (GLSEN, 2006). For as many as two million school-age children
and adolescents, victimization may be related to their perceived sexual orientation, including
verbal and physical harassment, threats, and intimidation (Browman, 2001). Such
youngsters also tend to be subjected to derogatory comments, name-calling, and/or jokes
pertaining to their actual or perceived sexual preference (Horowitz & Loehnig, 2005). In
a study of 218 secondary school students and teachers in Pennsylvania, more than 80% of
students reported that they heard various homophobic remarks at school (Grant, 2006).
Such treatment can have a variety of negative outcomes for the development of sexual
minority youth, including low self-esteem, depression, suicidal ideation or completion,
abuse of alcohol and other substances, sexual acting out, exposure to sexually transmitted
diseases, and subjection to violence at rates higher than their heterosexual counterparts
(Callahan, 2001; National Association of School Psychologists, 2004).
Adams, Cox, and Dunstan (2004) contend that much of the prejudice, discrimination,
and victimization associated with developing a non-heterosexual identity are encountered
at school. As a result, for many sexual minority students, school is experienced as unsafe,
and hence their survival, rather than their education, assumes top priority (Weiler, 2004).
Because LGBT youth often fear being attacked and/or ridiculed while at school, remaining
focused on learning tasks presents quite a challenge, placing these students at heightened
risk for a variety of academic difficulties and scholastic underachievement (NASP, 2004).
When compared to their heterosexual peers, sexual minority youth are also more likely to
be absent frequently and leave school altogether, with 28% dropping out of school before
graduation (NASP, 2004; National Mental Health Association, 2004).
The adverse effects that bullying can have upon the lives of sexual minority youth
extend far beyond the academic realm. For example, students whose behavior is atypical
for their gender (Young & Sweeting, 2004) and sexual minority youth frequently report
a loss of friends due to their sexual orientation (D’Augelli, 2002), and many feel lonely
and isolated from members of their peer group (Callahan, 2001). In an attempt to avoid
rejection and/or ridicule at the hands of their peers, sexually-diverse youth may hide their
sexual orientation, which often intensifies the sense of confusion and self-doubt that typically
plague these children and adolescents. As previously indicated, those who choose to
reveal their sexual orientation to others generally fare only marginally better, however,
as they risk violence, harassment, prejudice, and discrimination by their peers, families,
and/or teachers, as well as society at large (Weiler, 2004).
Gender-role nonconformity has been found to be associated with suicidality among
gay male youth, with bullying mediating this relationship (Friedman, Koeske, Silvestre,
Korr, & Sites, 2006). Further, as sexually-diverse youth progress from adolescence into
adulthood, they may carry the scars from peer harassment with them. In a study of 1,285
gay, lesbian, and bisexual adults in the United Kingdom, 31% reported attempting suicide,
which was associated with discrimination such as physical attack or school bullying
(Warner, 2004). Thus, while sexual minority youth may face the same social and developmental
challenges as their heterosexual peers, the added burdens of social isolation, selfdoubt,
and fear create difficulties beyond those experienced by their non-sexual minority
counterparts, during adolescence and beyond (Weiler, 2004).
Of particular concern to schools is that much victimization of students based on
sexual orientation occurs at a low level, and as a result, often goes undetected by educators
and other school-based professionals. While LGBT students are frequently bullied
and harassed by peers, many do not report the problem to school officials (Grant, 2006).
Additionally, when they are aware of the problem, educators may not address bullying of
sexually-diverse children and adolescents because of fear of discrimination, fear of job
loss, their own prejudices, or failure to recognize bullying based on sexual orientation as
a serious problem (Browman, 2001). Nonetheless, as Dupper and Meyer-Adams (2002) assert,
even low level victimization angers and alienates youth, and contributes to an overall
hostile school environment. In addition, harassment by peers undermines students’
physical and emotional well-being and safety, and could potentially result in retaliatory
violence (Dupper & Meyer-Adams, 2002). Unfortunately, research conducted by Adams
and colleagues (2004) indicates that few schools specifically address issues pertaining to sexual orientation in their anti-bullying policies. Thus, in order to improve the educational
experience of sexual minority students, it is vitally important that school psychologists,
educators, and other school staff develop an increased awareness of the issues faced by
these students, and learn effective strategies for preventing and intervening in instances
of bullying of LGBT children and adolescents.
Role of the School Psychologist
In a recent survey of school psychologists (all of whom were members of NASP), Savage,
Prout, and Chard (2004) found that school psychologists tend to report positive attitudes
toward sexual minority youth, and that many are willing to address the issues faced
by these students while on the job. However, numerous practitioners surveyed reported
low-to-moderate levels of knowledge regarding the difficulties faced by sexual minority
youth, and most felt inadequately prepared to deal effectively with these students in their
schools (Savage et al., 2004). As educators trained in prevention, assessment, and intervention
regarding mental health issues, school psychologists are in an ideal position to
effect positive change in the lives of sexual minority youth. The following recommendations
provide an outline of specific steps that school psychologists can take in their efforts
to improve the educational, social, and emotional experiences of sexually-diverse children
and adolescents at school.
Providing education and training to school personnel and students. Dupper and
Meyer-Adams (2002) indicate that school personnel are often indifferent and lack training
relevant to sexual minority youth; in some instances, they may actually be perpetrators
of victimization of this population. Clearly, this finding underscores the need for school
psychologists to provide training and education for educational personnel regarding the
ethical and legal responsibility to ensure that all students, regardless of their sexual orientation,
are protected and treated respectfully (Weiler, 2004). Educating staff regarding
the unique difficulties often faced by sexual minority youth, as well as effective ways to interact
with and respond to concerns voiced by sexually-diverse children and adolescents,
should likewise be beneficial.
Similarly, educating students in this regard is critical to improving the experience of
LGBT youth at school (NASP, 2004). School psychologists and other school-based mental
health professionals can present information about bullying of sexually-diverse students
and the damaging effects of peer-harassment upon children’s and adolescents’ present
and future functioning. Films such as Let’s Get Real, the Columbine Award winner for
Best Short Documentary by the Moondance International Film Festival, can be used to
initiate discussions among middle and high school students about the social issues related
to bullying and peer-violence. In this film, sixth through ninth grade students talk
about bullying from a wide range of perspectives, including those who have been perpetrators,
victims, and bystanders (New Day Films, 2006).
Showing support for diversity. School psychologists should model the use of accepting
and affirming language, attitudes, and behavior in their daily interactions with
students and school staff (NASP, 2004). In addition, it is critical that school psychologists
provide acceptance and support to sexual minority or questioning youth, as these
students tend to fear being misunderstood and/or rejected, yet desperately need to feel
that they are accepted both by peers and trusted adults (Weiler, 2004). School psychologists
can identify themselves as supportive of sexually-diverse youth by affixing rainbow
posters or stickers outside of their office, or by placing “safe zone” stickers on their doors
(Weiler, 2004). These gestures also send the message to students that the school psychologist
is a trusted adult who can be consulted when issues relating to sexual orientation
arise. For interested individuals, several posters (such as those referenced above) are
available for download and printing from the NASP website at http://www.nasponline.
To further demonstrate their acceptance of all students, school psychologists can
support the development of groups that promote understanding and acceptance of human
diversity (NASP, 2004). For example, they can advocate for the formation of Gay/
Straight Alliances within their school system to provide sexual minority youth with a forum
for discussion and support, and to educate their heterosexual peers. The Safe Schools
Manual, created by the Saint Paul Public Schools’ Out for Equity program, can be used to
provide support to sexually-diverse students, families, and educators through suggestions
for implementing and supporting Gay/Straight Alliance after-school clubs and guidelines
for operating school-based LGBT support groups (Horowitz & Loehnig, 2005).
Counseling. In counseling (either individual or group-based), school psychologists
can encourage sexual minority youth to discuss incidents of victimization based on their
sexual orientation, and address any mental health issues that may arise as a result of these
experiences (D’Augelli, Pilkington, & Hershberger, 2002). Before initiating a counseling
relationship with a LGBT student, it is imperative that school psychologists be well-informed
of the difficulties often faced by these individuals. Practitioners may gain such
knowledge through a variety of avenues, possibly by reading, pursuing additional coursework,
particularly in the area of human sexuality, or consulting with colleagues who have
more knowledge and experience working with sexual minority youth. In addition, it is
crucial that school psychologists continually monitor their own attitudes regarding nontraditional
sexual orientation in an effort to ensure that any biases and beliefs they hold
do not hamper their ability to work effectively with members of this population. In schools
in which the student body is particularly diverse, knowledge of the stance that various
cultural, ethnic, and religious groups take regarding homosexuality is also advisable.
Consulting for curricular changes. School psychologists can also advocate for the
inclusion of information about homosexuality and sexual minority individuals into existing
curricula. Making such curricular modifications provides sexually-diverse youth with
role models and demonstrates to students that individuals who are lesbian, gay, bisexual,
and transgender are capable of leading meaningful, productive lives. Altering the school
curriculum to reflect greater tolerance and acceptance of LGBT individuals should also help to reduce social stigma and homophobic attitudes among students and staff alike
(Callahan, 2001). Furthermore, including information relevant to sexual minority youth
in the curriculum may help to reduce the sense of being misunderstood and the feeling
of being invisible that are often experienced by these students (NASP, 2004). Specific
curricular changes may include requiring students to read works written by well-known
LGBT authors in an English class, or discussing the gay rights movement along with
other civil rights movements in a history course (NASP, 2004). Further, the Safe Schools
Manual contains psychoeducational lesson ideas and practical strategies to make schools
safer for LGBT youth, as well as a comprehensive selection of local and national organizations
and websites that provide service and support to sexual minority students (Horowitz
& Loehnig, 2005).
Given that school psychologists often receive little or no professional training relevant
to sexual orientation, advocating for curricular changes at the university level may
also be beneficial. School psychologists should therefore encourage training programs to
include coursework and field practice relevant to work with sexual minority youth, and
to devote increased instructional time to discussions of issues faced by these students
within the school setting. Additionally, school psychologists can consult with college and
university librarians to increase holdings of books, periodicals, and media devoted to topics
of relevance and concern to students and faculty regarding sexual diversity.
Assisting in the development of school-wide policy. To ensure that sexual minority
youth feel safe, school-wide policies forbidding anti-gay harassment should be developed
and implemented or added to existing policies. School psychologists can assist in
developing a systemic school policy of zero tolerance for discrimination and harassment,
with particular attention devoted to bullying of sexually diverse students, since children
and adolescents, faculty, and staff may not perceive this form of victimization to be as
damaging as other kinds of intolerance. Elements of such policies should include a clear
statement regarding specific incidents that will not be tolerated, such as name-calling,
property damage, and physical or sexual assault (Weiler, 2004).
School-based practitioners can also assist in determining appropriate consequences
for students violating school policy, and collaborate with school staff in its implementation.
Because feeling safe at school is a necessary precursor to both academic and social
success, the development of policies designed to protect sexual minority students from
victimization is essential to improving the school experiences of these youth. An example
of this may be found in the Harvey Milk High School in New York City, which was established
in 1985 for the purpose of providing a safe learning environment for LGBT adolescents
Furthering knowledge through research activities. Although the issue of bullying
in schools has received much attention in the research literature in recent years, a paucity
of studies investigating victimization among LGBT youth in the United States have
been conducted to date. However, because these students are likely to be bullied at rates
higher than their heterosexual peers, and suffer from a variety of negative consequences
as a result, a broader, in-depth understanding of the victimization of this population is
sorely needed. School psychologists are thus advised to conduct and support research
with this unique population of students, particularly with regard to effective interventions
and programs specifically designed to address the needs of LGBT and questioning youth
in schools. Additionally, school psychologists should ensure that relevant research findings
are disseminated to colleagues, students, and parents (NASP, 2004).
Advocacy at the regional, state, and national levels. Using organizational consultation,
school psychologists can also be valuable in assisting legislators in developing policies
designed to ensure the safety of all students, regardless of sexual orientation or gender
identity. In 2004, New Jersey was ranked as first among all 50 states and the District of
Columbia in supporting safe school laws for LGBT youth and educators. Unfortunately,
most students do not enjoy legal protections against anti-LGBT bullying and harassment.
(Only 8 states and the District of Columbia currently have statewide legal protections for
students based on sexual orientation, and only California, Minnesota, and New Jersey
include protections based on gender identity or expression.) Further, more than 75% of
the approximately 47.7 million K-12 students in the United States attend schools that
do not include sexual orientation and gender identity/expression as statewide protected
classes alongside federally mandated protections based on religion, race, and national
origin (Snorton, 2005).
Although bullying of sexual minority youth in schools is widespread, educators are
generally unaware of the degree of victimization faced by these students, and thus often fail
to intervene in instances when bullying occurs. Furthermore, because school-wide antibullying
policies tend not to directly address issues related to sexual orientation, it may be
unclear to students and staff alike what types of behavior will/will not be tolerated in this
regard, as well as the repercussions for failing to adhere to school policy. Nonetheless, given
the variety of risks faced by sexual minority youth, addressing the unique needs of this
population in the school setting is crucial. School psychologists are in an ideal position to
effect positive change in the lives of sexual minority youth through a variety of methods,
such as education, consultation, counseling, advocacy, and research activity.
Adams, N., Cox, T., & Dunstan, L. (2004). ‘I am the hate that dare not speak its name’:
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that mediate the relation between peer group rejection and children’s classroom
engagement and achievement? Journal of Educational Psychology, 98, 1–13.
Bullock, J. R. (2002). Bullying among children. Childhood Education, 78, 130–133.
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Humanistic Counseling, Education, and Development, 40, 5–10.
Carney, A. G., & Merrell, K. W. (2001). Bullying in schools: Perspectives on understanding
and preventing an international problem. School Psychology International, 22(3),
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Crick, N. R., Ostrov, J. M., & Werner, N. E. (2006). A longitudinal study of relational aggression,
physical aggression, and children’s social-psychological adjustment. Journal of
Abnormal Child Psychology, 34, 131–142.
D’Augelli, A. R. (2002). Mental health problems among lesbian, gay, and bisexual youths
aged 14 to 21. Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 7, 433–456.
D’Augelli, A. R., Pilkington, N. W., & Hershberger, S. L. (2002). Incidence and mental
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culture. Urban Education, 37, 350–364.
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among gay male youth. Journal of Adolescent Health, 38, 621–623.
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and parents can do. Alexandria, VA: American Counseling Association.
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as a group process: Participant roles and their relations to social status within
the group. Aggressive Behavior, 22, 1–15.
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analysis of statewide safe schools policies. New York: Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education
Network. Retrieved October 6, 2006 from: http://www.glsen.org/cgi-bin/iowa/all/
Sullivan, T. N., Farrell, A. D., & Kliewer, W. (2006). Peer victimization in early adolescence:
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and delinquent behaviors among urban middle school students. Development and
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© 2007, National Association of School Psychologists. Laura Crothers, PhD, NCSP, is a
trainer at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA, and a member of NASP’s LGBT Workgroup. Cindy Altman
is a doctoral student in school psychology at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA.
LGBT Resources for School Psychologists
School psychologists seeking further information on issues related to sexual
minority youth are encouraged to consult the references listed below. Many of the
resources may also be appropriate to refer to sexual minority youth, as well as their
family and friends, for valuable information and support. It is noted that the list provided
is far from exhaustive, as many agencies and organizations seeking to improve
the lives of sexual minority individuals exist. Those ultimately selected for inclusion
were chosen due to the focus on sexual minority children and adolescents, as well as
the perceived relevance to school-based practitioners.
- Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network — http://www.glsen.org
A central aim of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) is
to ensure that all students are valued and respected regardless of their sexual orientation.
This organization also seeks to create school environments where all students
are safe. The GLSEN website contains information for both students and educators.
- Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays — http://www.pflag.org
Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) seeks to promote
the well-being of LGBT individuals, and to provide support and information to their
parents, families, and friends. A portion of the PFLAG website contains information
about education and programming efforts designed to ensure equality for sexual
minority individuals in school settings.
- Advocates for Youth — http://www.advocatesforyouth.org/glbtq.htm
This section of the Advocates for Youth website contains links to a variety of
fact sheets and pamphlets, and provides helpful tips and strategies for those working
with LGBT or questioning youth. Many of these resources could easily be shared
with students, parents, and/or teachers.
- American Psychological Association’s Healthy Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual
Students Project — http://www.apa.org/ed/hlgb/
This portion of the American Psychological Association’s (APA) website contains
information pertaining to sexual minority youth, as well as a variety of helpful
links for school professionals, youth, and parents.
- Position Statement on Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning
(GLBTQ) Youth — http://www.nasponline.org/about_nasp/pospaper_glb.aspx
The NASP position statement regarding sexual minority youth serves as a general
guide to the conduct of practitioners working with members of this population.
Of particular relevance to the practicing school psychologist, the position statement
includes numerous recommendations for creating safe educational environments for
sexual minority youth.