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NASP Communiqué, Vol. 35, #5
February 2007

Safe and Affirmative Schools for Sexual Minority Youth

By Erica Weiler, PhD, NCSP
Harrisburg, PA

Schools have a legal, ethical, and moral obligation to provide equal access to education and equal protection under the law for all students. For many sexual minority youth, schools are unsafe and survival, not education, is the priority. According to Kinsey (as cited in Uribe & Harbeck, 1991; see “Resources”), an estimated 10% of students are exclusively homosexual. Sexual minority and gender nonconforming youth are denied basic rights such as a free and appropriate public education owing to prejudice, harassment, and discrimination in schools.

School Climate for Sexual Minority Youth

School climate is a significant determinant of whether an environment is healthy and conducive to learning. A 1999 study conducted by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Educators Network (GLSEN) examined 42 of the largest school districts in the country and found that almost half received a failing grade in providing a positive climate for sexual minority youth.

Most students are taught that overt behavior, such as the use of religious, racial or ethnic slurs, is intolerable. However, homophobic name-calling and anti-gay taunts such as “fag” or “You’re so gay” are rampant in most schools and are dreaded by students. A climate survey by GLSEN (2001) found that 83% of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered youth experienced verbal, physical, or sexual harassment and assault at school, which is significantly higher than for heterosexual youth. Specific acts of school violence included sexual minority youth being urinated and/or ejaculated upon, attacked with weapons, receiving death threats, having their clothes pulled off, and being gang raped. More than 68% of sexual minority students reported feeling unsafe in school because of their sexual orientation. However, in one third of incidents of anti-gay harassment, adult witnesses did not help.

Implications of Risk Factors

Adolescence can be a stressful period for all youth owing to the tremendous physical, psychological, and cognitive changes that occur. The process of coming out to oneself, or developing a sexual minority identity and coming out to others or disclosure, increases stressors and isolation. Additionally, stressors related to violence, harassment, prejudice, discrimination, and stigmatization place sexual minority youth atrisk for mental health, physical, and educational problems.

Rates of suicidal ideation, attempts, and suicide by sexual minority youth are estimated to be two to three times higher than for heterosexual youth. Sexual minority youth are more likely to engage in high-risk behaviors such as drug and alcohol abuse to cope with depression and feeling marginalized. Their homes are not always havens from school since they are also more likely to experience physical and verbal abuse at home. They are frequently kicked out or forced to leave home owing to conflicts related to their sexual orientation.

Since homeless sexual minority youth have few marketable skills, many engage in prostitution to support themselves, which greatly increases the risk of HIV infection and drug abuse. School survival is the priority and many experience academic and learning problems. Sexual minority youth may be less involved in school activities and more likely to be truant. They drop out of school because of harassment at a rate about four times the national average (data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 1989).

Legal Requirements and Consequences for Schools

Legal mandates. Many schools fail to recognize sexual minority youth, assume that heterosexuality is the norm, and do not address stressors that affect the safety and education of sexual minority students. These practices have a negative impact on students and significant legal and financial implications for school districts. Any educational program or activity that receives Federal financial assistance cannot discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or choose which students will be safe. According to the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, students are entitled to equal protection under the law.

Nabozny ruling. This protection was evident in Nabozny v. Podlesny, 92 F. 3d 446 (7th Cir. 1996). Jamie Nabozny was beaten to the point of requiring surgery, urinated upon, called anti-gay epithets, and made to suffer repeated assaults. This abuse had a significant impact on Jamie’s mental health and he dropped out of school. Despite frequent meetings with school officials, intervention by Jamie’s parents, and identification of his attackers, the school took no meaningful disciplinary action against the perpetrators. The three administrators were found guilty of discrimination because they failed to protect Jamie, but responded to harassment directed at others. They were personally liable for a settlement of nearly $1 million. The legal mandate of equality applies to all decisions that a public school official might make that would treat sexual minority youth differently.

School-Based Interventions

Schools typically do not have the information, interest, or comfort to address the needs of sexual minority youth. However, school personnel are responsible for all students, including sexual minorities. School personnel may be their only support system and, with effective intervention, can have a positive impact on the lives of these students. An affirmative environment is more likely when personnel are knowledgeable about protective factors and the needs of sexual minority youth, provide support and understanding, and become advocates and allies.

Increase safety. The most basic intervention to improve school climate is to increase school safety. Anti-gay epithets create a negative school climate and enforce the message that hate speech is permitted. A school-wide policy of zero tolerance for anti-gay harassment, hate epithets, and slurs must be developed and consistently enforced. This policy should apply to students and staff and include incidents from namecalling to physical/sexual assault. The creation of a non-discrimination school policy for sexual minority students and staff extends additional protections. Including staff in the policy demonstrates to youth that their role models will not be discriminated against, which may increase the likelihood of staff being “out” and willing to serve as resources.

Affirmation of diversity. To increase the affirmation of diversity in schools, diversity must be equally represented, respected, and celebrated. To eliminate misinformation and bias, accurate information regarding sexuality, sexual orientation issues, and famous sexual minority individuals must be infused into different subjects in the curriculum. Setting a positive environment includes displaying posters about sexual minority youth, literature by sexual minorities, and providing library resources. The use of gender neutral and inclusive language indicates that sexual orientation is not assumed.

To assist school personnel in understanding sexual minority youth and use effective interventions, ongoing inservices, anti-bias training, and education regarding the legal responsibility to protect and treat all youth respectfully is needed. An effective way to improve school climate is to establish a school-based Gay- Straight Alliance, which provides support and companionship, improves self-esteem, and promotes positive school change.

Conclusion

Creating safe and affirmative schools for all students, including sexual minority and gender nonconforming youth, is essential to increase equal access to education. When school personnel do not intervene in anti-gay abuse, they deny the existence and unique needs of this population and place this population’s mental health and education at risk. Conversely, school personnel may improve the physical, social, and psychological functioning of sexual minority youth through their support and advocacy.

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.

* Compiled by Laura Crothers for “Bullying of Sexually Diverse Children and Adolescents,” published in the February 2007 issue of Communiqué.

Websites

Advocates for Youth — www.advocatesforyouth.org

Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) — www.glsen.org

Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund — www.lambdalegal.org

NASP Work Group on Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Issues — www.nasponline.org/advocacy/glb.aspx

National Youth Advocacy Coalition (NYAC) — www.nyacyouth.org

!Outproud! The National Coalition for GLBT Youth — www.outproud.org

Parents and Families of Gays and Lesbians (PFLAG) — www.pflag.org

Project 10: On-Site Educational Support Services for GLBTQ Youth — www.project10.org

The Safe School Coalition of Washington — www.safeschools-wa.org

Youth Resource — www.youthresource.com

Erica Weiler, PhD, NCSP, is a school psychologist at a private residential school for at-risk, low-income youth in Harrisburg, PA. She co-authored School Discipline and School Violence: The Teacher Variance Approach, and has provided numerous trainings about sexual minority youth. This handout is updated from an article initially provided by NASP to the Guidance Channel website in December 2001 and was first published in Helping Children at Home and School II: Handouts for Families and Educators (NASP, 2004).