2016 Convention News

Presenters in Focus: Building a Community of LGBTQ+ Allies to Improve School Climate: An Interview With Jennifer M. Cooper

By Jennifer M. Cooper

Volume 44 Issue 5

By Jennifer M. Cooper

A national school climate study of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT; NASP uses LGBTQ+ to encompass all sexual and gender populations; the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network’s [GLSEN] research references LGBT, and we have maintained this distinction for accuracy purposes) youth revealed that 63% of LGBT youth described feeling unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation, and 82% had been verbally harassed, 38% physically harassed, and 18% physically assaulted while at school (Kosciw, Greytak, Palmer, & Boesen, 2014). Sixty percent of students in the same survey did not report harassment due to a lack of trust that school staff would intervene. Among negative outcomes for LGBTQ+ youth are higher rates of poor peer relationships, absenteeism, academic difficulties, social isolation, psychological risk, and suicidality than their heterosexual counterparts (see Rivers & Noret, 2008). In this Q&A, convention presenter Jennifer Cooper discusses how school psychologists can utilize their skills as consultants and take action as leaders of systems-level change within schools to create safer school climates for LGBTQ+ students (NASP Practice Model Domains: 2, 4, & 6). She and Dr. Kisha Radliff (The Ohio State University) will provide direct instruction during their mini-skills session, MS219: Building a Community of LGBTQ+ Allies to Improve School Climate, Saturday, February 13, 2016, 10:00–11:50 a.m.

Sexual minority youth are at increased risk for a variety of social–emotional and developmental outcomes due to bullying, harassment, and lack of support. What progress have you seen over recent years in interrupting this negative trajectory?

We’ve seen school climate improve somewhat in recent years, but schools remain hostile environments for many sexual minority youth. For example, according to the most recent biennial (Kosciw et al., 2014) survey conducted by GLSEN, the percentage of students hearing homophobic remarks had declined from more than 80% in 2001 to about 60% in 2013. Students also reported experiencing lower verbal and physical harassment based on sexual orientation and gender expression than in all prior years and fewer incidences of physical assault since 2007. The availability of LGBTQ+-related supports and resources has also improved in schools over recent years. In 2013, a higher percentage of students surveyed reported having supportive school staff and the presence of a Gay–Straight Alliance (GSA) in their school compared to all prior survey years (Kosciw et al., 2014). Although these trends indicate progress in the right direction, important work remains to be done in creating safe, welcoming, and affirming places for LGBTQ+ students. For example, LGBT students in rural school settings continue to report higher levels of victimization compared to students in urban and suburban schools (Kosciw et al., 2014).

What arguments are persuasive in helping school administrators understand the need for an improved school climate for LGBTQ+ students?

Administrators are undoubtedly busy people, so it’s important to be direct, articulate your needs and desires, and have data prepared to inform the decision-making process. Below are a few tips paraphrased from GLSEN’s (2013) Safe Space training kit that should help administrators understand the urgent need to improve school climate for sexual minority youth.

Show them why the change is necessary. “I think there is a need for a comprehensive antibullying/harassment policy (or a training for all staff, etc.) in this school because.…” If possible, use statistics from a GLSEN National School Climate Survey or Research Brief for your specific state (see or a school climate survey you have conducted in your school. If applicable, give them brief descriptions of the anti-LGBTQ+ behavior you have witnessed in the school.

Put the focus on safety. All administrators have a responsibility to make sure their schools are safe (physically and emotionally) for the students who attend them. “The climate in the school is having an effect (cite data; e.g., statistics, NASP position paper, incidents, stories) on the comfort, safety, and sense of belonging of many of the students, as well as on attendance and grades.” Point out to them the negative effects that anti-LGBTQ+ behavior has, not only on sexual minority students, but all students.

Show them how the school community will benefit from the change. “These actions will help make our school a safer and friendlier place for all students, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.” Provide information on how this change can result in better outcomes for all students, including improved student achievement. For example, share research from GLSEN’s National School Climate Survey about the benefits of having supportive school staff or a comprehensive antibullying/harassment policy.

Give an overview of how educators can be allies to LGBTQ+ students and the changes the school can make. Briefly share with them specific ways educators can be supportive allies to sexual minority students, such as intervening when anti-LGBTQ+ behavior occurs, not making assumptions about the sexual orientation or gender identity of their students (or their parents), and including positive images of LGBTQ+ people, history, and events in their curriculum. Briefly share with them the specific changes that will make your school safer. Be direct and use concrete examples such as starting a GSA or making the school’s antibullying policies specifically include LGBTQ+ students.

Why are school psychologists uniquely poised to act as LGBTQ+ allies?

School psychologists’ primary role is to help students to be successful academically, socially, and emotionally. We also bring a wealth of knowledge in the areas of development, mental health, consultation, counseling, and family–school collaboration that can be invaluable to LGBTQ+ youth and their allies. School psychologists are often viewed as the mental health professionals in their schools, and they can use that position to form multidisciplinary teams and to leverage important advocacy efforts designed to support the overall social–emotional well-being of all students and staff (Cooper, Dollarhide, Radliff, & Gibbs, 2014). School psychologists also are well suited to provide system-level consultation, staff training, program design, and evaluation guidance. Moreover, school psychologists have a long history of advocacy and are charged with upholding professional ethics and best practices to protect the dignity and rights of LGBTQ+ youth and ensure an equal educational opportunity for all students.

What are the first advocacy steps a school psychologist should take in developing a community of allies?

One of the first steps that a school psychologist can take is being aware of discipline-specific position statements such as those developed by NASP (2011) to guide their advocacy work in schools and assist with information dissemination in schools. Next, school psychologists should attend an allyhood training such as the one highlighted in this article, or a Safe Space or Space Zone training. The goal of such trainings generally includes (a) introducing basic LGBTQ+ terminology and concepts, (b) discussing what it means to be an ally, and (c) providing activities to build skills aimed at addressing anti-LGBTQ+ behavior. This will help school psychologists to learn more about the issues facing LGBTQ+ youth, how to support and advocate for and with them in schools, and how to educate others to do the same. After learning how to become an effective ally, it’s important for school psychologists to work to create a support network of other school-based mental health professionals while working to develop an action plan. Some questions to consider in developing the action plan include the following:

  • What can I do to support LGBTQ+ students?
  • What can I do to educate students and school staff?
  • What can I do to advocate for change in my school?
  • What further information, resources, or support do I need?
  • What challenges do I anticipate and how can I overcome them?

School psychologists are also encouraged to join one or more of NASP’s interest groups, such as the Social Justice Interest Group or the LGBTQ+ Interest Group, as a way of learning from and supporting other professional allies in our field. School psychologists may also choose to consider starting a GSA at their school or serving as the GSA advisor if one already exists for middle and high schools (research has shown that LGBTQ+ youth are coming out as early as middle school). Interested individuals are referred to the following two resources: GLSEN’s Jump-Start Guide for Gay-Straight Alliances (available at and “Improving the Lives of Students, Gay and Straight Alike: Gay–Straight Alliances and the Role of School Psychologists” (Murphy, 2012).

What are the most essential elements of allyhood for adults and youth at school?

An ally can be defined as:

… an individual who speaks out and stands up for a person or group that is targeted and discriminated against … an ally works to end oppression by supporting and advocating for people who are stigmatized, discriminated against, or treated unfairly. For the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) communities, an ally is any person who supports and stands up for the rights of LGBT people. (GLSEN, 2013, p. 5)

A key role of a school-based ally is to use the power and influence they have as an educator to advocate for the rights of LGBTQ+ students and ensure safe schools for all. Although various models of allyhood exist, most developmental models describe change as it occurs over time in several areas (e.g., cognitive, intrapersonal, interpersonal). Therefore, the goal of allyhood trainings is to meet participants where they are in the process while focusing on raising personal awareness, increasing knowledge of the issues, teaching advocacy skills, and helping allies to act in instances of social injustice.

It’s important to remember that ally development is a lifelong process. Being an ally can be energy depleting, and one person cannot step-up every time. That is why a critical aspect of ally training is about creating a network of support. We invite you to join us in taking a step to be a part of the change you would like to see in your schools.

Be an ally. Be the change.

Jennifer Cooper, PhD, NCSP, is an assistant professor in the school psychology program at National Louis University. She is cochair of the NASP Social Justice Interest Group