Schools are supposed to serve as “safe zones;” it’s time
they stood up against harassment and bullying of all students
Last week a girl wrote a letter to the Hockaday School’s student newspaper, the Fourcast, revealing her bisexuality. I’m sure she did not fear for her life, seeing as Hockaday is a pretty gentile all-girls’ school, and there is a strict no-tolerance harassment policy. Still, the courage it took for her to take such a risk should be commended.
Imagine what it would be like for a student who was openly gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender in a school where the faculty and administration failed to provide support for them. Unfortunately, that is the case for thousands of students across the country.
Although harassment of students who identify as GLBT is a documented problem in America’s schools, there are promising results in the 2005 National School Climate Survey. It suggests that increases in support networks and inclusive policies are helping students feel more comfortable and accepted.
The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network is striving to promote a safe environment in schools for all students. The group recently published its 2005 National School Climate Survey, the only survey that documents the experiences of students who identify as GLBT. The survey addresses the differences between students who feel safe and those who do not. It also acknowledges advances made in intervention and support.
The survey includes responses from 1,732 GLBT students between the ages of 13 and 20 from across the nation.
The NSCS reports that 75.4 percent of students frequently heard derogatory remarks such as “faggot” or “dyke,” and 89.2 percent report hearing phrases such as, “that’s so gay” or “you’re so gay,” which was thought to mean stupid or worthless.
Even more disturbing is that a third of students experienced physical harassment at school based on their sexual orientation, and more than a quarter suffered because of their gender expression. Almost one-fifth of students were physically assaulted because of their sexual orientation, and over a tenth because of their gender expression.
Fearing for one’s own safety is obviously a hindrance to a student’s learning experience, affecting their academic engagement, aspirations and achievements. NSCS notes that GLBT students are five times more likely to report having skipped school in the last month because of safety concerns. The average G.P.A. for a GLBT student who was frequently harassed was half a grade point lower than students experiencing less harassment, showing an average 2.6 vs. 3.1. Overall, they were twice as likely as general population students to report they were not planning to pursue post-secondary education. This was especially the case for those who had experienced physical harassment.
But it’s not all gray skies. The presence of supportive staff at schools contributed to reports of greater sense of safety, fewer reports of missed school days and a higher incidence of planning to attend college. Clubs, such as the Gay-Straight Alliance provide a peer support network, helping foster the sense of inclusiveness and self-empowerment. Students attending schools that have adopted anti-harassment policies reported a lower incidence of hearing homophobic remarks, lower rates of verbal harassment, and higher rates of staff intervention.
Unfortunately, support at state levels for more extensive anti-harassment policies is limited. Only nine states and the District of Columbia have comprehensive anti-bullying laws that specifically address bullying and harassment based on sexual orientation, and only three of those states mention gender identity. Nine other states, including Texas, have generic anti-bullying laws that either do not specifically define bullying or enumerate categories of protected classes such as sexual orientation and gender expression. The remaining 32 states lack anti-bullying laws altogether.
NSCS found that states with “generic” anti-bullying laws and states with no law at all had high rates of verbal harassment. Conversely, states that include protected classes of sexual orientation and gender identity have significantly lower rates of verbal harassment. The difference being 40.8 percent, compared to 31.6 percent.
In an ideal world there would be no harassment or bullying in schools, but feeling unsafe at school is prevalent among GLBT teens
Founder and executive director of GLSEN, Kevin Jennings said the survey reveals a silver lining. It makes clear that inclusive policies, supportive school staff and student clubs such as the Gay-Straight Alliance have led to reduced harassment and higher achieving students.
Although The Hockaday School is becoming more accepting with gay-inclusive clubs such as GSA and Race Relations, which conducts forums on sexual orientation, there is still a long way to go. Some members of the board of trustees and the alumnae object to gay-inclusive policies. I can walk up and down the halls and undoubtedly hear someone say “that’s so gay,” when referring to something “uncool.”
Although as far as I could tell every one treated the girl who came out the same as before, I wonder how many people see her in a different light. Even the safest schools can harbor prejudices.
The solution to anti-gay discrimination in schools is two-fold. Students and faculty, both gay and straight, must realize the severity of the issue and bring it to the forefront. This, in turn, will force the state governments to enact legislature, stating harsher punishments for bullying and harassment of GLBT teens under a protected class.
Schools are supposed to serve as “safe zones,” it’s time they stood up against harassment and bullying of all students.
Morgan Ray is a senior at The Hockaday School. She plans to attend George Washington University and major in political communications with a focus in broadcast communications.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, May 19, 2006.