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Q&A: How to support LGBTQ students in your schools

LGBTQ

As we celebrate Pride Month each June, I like to take time to reflect on the support our K-12 schools provide for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) students. 

My education research—and dissertation—have focused largely on how districts can improve LGBTQ student inclusion, curricula and teaching practices, and safety. 

This year, as I reflect on the state of LGBTQ students in schools, I am admittedly conflicted. 

It’s true that we’ve come a long way in the last 20, 10, even 5 years. Conversations around sexuality and gender identity are more open than they have been in the past—and many school district leaders understand that they have to do more to support LGBTQ students. According to the 2017 GLSEN National School Climate Survey, almost all LGBTQ students (96.7 percent) could identify at least one staff member supportive of LGBTQ students at their school.

Begun in 1999, the GLSEN National School Climate Survey is the only one of its kind. It documents  the experiences of LGBTQ youth in schools, including the extent of the challenges that they face and their access to school-based resources that support their educational success and well-being.

The latest GLSEN survey illustrates the fact that too many LGBTQ students are still dealing with the tragic effects of bullying and violence in schools, which is compounded by a failure of school staff and leaders to effectively address these problems. More than 60 percent of participating students who reported an incident of bullying or abuse based on their sexuality or gender expression said that school staff did nothing in response or told the student to ignore it.  And, although a majority (79.3 percent) of participating students had an anti-bullying policy at their school, less than 15 percent of them reported that their school had a comprehensive policy (i.e., one that specifically enumerates both sexual orientation and gender identity/expression).

It’s obvious that K-12 school leaders and educators need to do more to ensure some of our most vulnerable students feel safe and supported at school and are able to thrive no matter their identity or sexual preference—but many school leaders feel ill-equipped to do so.

My own research finds that some teachers still feel uncomfortable talking to their students about sexuality due to their beliefs or perceptions about what’s appropriate—often conflating sexual orientation with sex. Others feel pressure from administrators or parents to keep tight-lipped. And many point to a lack of professional development on how to establish LGBTQ-inclusive cultures or to identify anti-LGBTQ behaviors and harassment. 

So, my reflection this Pride Month leads to me more questions. Questions I know school leaders and educators across the country are asking themselves. It is clear that there is an urgent need for action to create safe and affirming learning environments for LGBTQ students. Yet findings on school climate suggest that more efforts are needed to reduce harassment and discrimination and increase affirmative supports.

While I may not have all the answers, I have gained some valuable insights during my time researching the progress of LGBTQ students in schools. As you work this month, summer, and upcoming school year to improve inclusivity and acceptance in your district, I hope these answers help shed some light on the path forward.

Q: How can teachers help LGBTQ students feel accepted, empowered, and engaged?

A: Teachers can be tremendous allies both in their role as educators and also as affirming adults in the lives of children. Creating a classroom environment where everyone feels safe and valued is an important first step to helping every student feel their presence is important and needed—regardless of their gender identity and sexual orientation. 

Administrators should help by providing professional development for school staff to improve intervention rates and increase the number of supportive teachers and other staff members available to students. Teachers have a wonderful opportunity to not only support students, but also to work with their school administrators to ensure that all families receive education and support related to these issues.

Q: What is a teacher’s role in preventing bullying?

A: Bullying of any kind is not to be tolerated. Teachers can act swiftly when bullying is apparent by immediately addressing the aggressive student and working with school administrators to provide appropriate intervention for that student. Often the student that is bullying needs support as well. Many times, the best way to deal with bullying is to make sure the entire school receives messages of inclusion and acceptance. Further, when students or other teachers lash out at LGBTQ individuals, it is often due to a lack of knowledge or understanding in general.

Q: What is the best way for schools to help LGBTQ students feel safe?

A: School leaders and teachers should set clear expectations of classroom behavior and make it abundantly clear that bullying or harassment of any kind will not be tolerated. Encourage thoughtful, respectful discourse. 

If homophobic or transphobic language is used by a student, don’t ignore it. Turn it into a teaching moment and deconstruct the ideas the student may have about a particular phrase or word. Often kids don’t understand the reasons why a word or phrase is hurtful. Once a teacher opens the dialogue, comments such as these are likely to decrease. 

The best LGBTQ-allied teachers and leaders monitor behavior to ensure LGBTQ students feel safe at school, and that potential aggressors understand discrimination of any sort will not be tolerated. 

  • Trust. If a student says they are being bullied, take them at their word and don’t dismiss the actions as teasing. Allegations about bullying must always be taken seriously. 
  • Tell. Inform school leaders of all reports of harassment so they can monitor the situation and respond appropriately.
  • Listen. If a student tells you they have been harassed for their sexual orientation or gender identity, listen without judgment or assumption.
  • Know. LGBTQ students are disproportionately the target of bullying, whether in school or online. Teachers should learn how to recognize and respond to warning signs of bullying in all forms.
  • Connect. Students who have been bullied may not be aware of school services that can help, like counseling or Gay Straight Alliance. Make sure students have all the information they need to access support.
  • Intervene. If you see a student being bullied or harassed, take action immediately. Targeted students need to know those around them will intervene-and bullies must know their actions won’t be tolerated.
  • Teach. Increase student access to appropriate and accurate information regarding LGBTQ people, history, and events through inclusive curricula, and library and internet resources.
  • Act. Adopt and implement comprehensive bullying/harassment policies that specifically enumerate sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression in individual schools and districts, with clear and effective systems for reporting and addressing incidents that students experience.

Taken together, such measures can move us toward a future in which all students have the opportunity to learn and succeed in school—regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.

If your district is looking to develop a better system of support for LGBTQ and other vulnerable students, I’d love to share strategies I’ve seen work in other school districts. Simply email me at christine.wells@k12insight.com to start the conversation. 

About the Author

Dr. Christine Wells
Dr. Christine Wells, NBCT, spent 16 years in K-12 schools as a teacher, instructional coach, building principal, and director for teaching and learning. She currently serves as Senior Director of Professional Learning and Research at K12 Insight.

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