School dangerous for LGBT youth despite legal protections

New data show high risks for LGBT youth at school.

Posted Jan 25, 2015

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In a fact sheet released today (Jan. 26, 2015), the Central Coast Coalition for Inclusive Schools (CCC4IS) in California is shining a light on the continuous challenges faced by LGBT youth in schools. Although the health disparities between LGBT youth and their straight, cisgender peers have been well documented, what is startling is how little has changed in schools when so much has changed in broader society. In California, there are three new laws that are designed to help all youth feel safer and more included at school with specific protections and attention to LGBT youth: Seth’s Law (2011), The FAIR Education Act (2011), and the School Success and Opportunity Act (2014), yet not much seems to have gotten better.

The California Healthy Kids Survey documents the behaviors of students in grades 7, 9, and 11 and asks a variety of questions about attendance, bullying, tobacco, drug and alcohol use, and other health-related behaviors. 2014 was the first year that this survey included two new questions regarding students’ sexual orientation and gender identity. These new questions allowed us to compare students who identify as gay, lesbian, and bisexual with their heterosexual peers as well as students who identify as transgender with their cisgender (non-trans identified) peers. The results are startling. In San Luis Obispo County, we had over 6500 students respond to the survey and their experiences reflect trends that have been documented in an earlier national study by GLSEN & Harris Interactive (2005) and the Oregon Healthy Teens Survey (Hatzenbuehler & Keyes 2013).

  • Attendance: Transgender youth skip school because they feel unsafe at a rate 12 times higher than their cisgender peers (23.2% vs. 1.9%), and LGB youth 6 times higher (12.3% vs. 1.8%)
  • Safety: LGB youth (21%) and transgender youth (39%) are much more likely to report that they feel unsafe or very unsafe at school compared to their peers (6.2%).
  • Bullying and harassment: LGB youth (33.8% vs. 11.5% heterosexual) and transgender youth (34% vs. 3.1% cisgender) 3-10 times more likely to have been threated with harm or injury than their peers.
  • Suicide: Half of LGB youth have seriously considered attempting suicide (50.3% LGB vs. 17.6% heterosexual) and 41.5% of transgender youth (vs. 19.2% cisgender).

Although California has been a leader in passing laws to protect LGBT youth in schools, the implementation of these laws has been very slow. In a report released by the state in August 2013, the state auditor noted significant problems in the bullying policies of many school districts in the state. In April 2014, I co-authored a report on the 10 school districts in San Luis Obispo County and none of them had fully implemented the changes required by Seth’s Law and most had never even heard of the FAIR Education Act.

The role of teachers

In my previous blog post, I wrote about new data reporting that 85% of teachers are supportive of efforts to be more inclusive of gender and sexual diversity in their schools and classrooms, however there is a significant gap between individual attitudes and actual practices. Many teachers report fearing backlash from their administration or local parents or conservative organizations if they take the steps that research tells us can make school environments more supportive for all youth. Steps such as:

  1. Hanging posters (from GLSEN, WA Safe Schools Coaltion, or Teaching Tolerance) and quotations that affirm a safe and inclusive classroom environment for all students that explicitly include gender and sexual diversity. 
  2. Using inclusive language and examples when teaching (spouse instead of wife/husband, child instead of son/daughter, reading stories about families with glbt parents, talking about diversity of gender identities and sexualities in health and sex education classes).
  3. Inviting in outside speakers to talk about glbt history, civil rights, or bullying, homophobia and transphobia.
  4. Facilitating discussions using non-fictional texts about current events that allow diverse perspectives to emerge on gender and sexual diversity (transgender visibility in the media, same-sex marriage, state of the union address, etc.).
  5. Assigning non-fiction or fictional texts that present experiences and viewpoints of diverse people who identify as LGBT.

Not many teachers in our study had actually tried these activities in spite of a stated personal commitment to the fact that “LGBT rights are human rights”.

FAIR Education Act

In California, the FAIR Education Act was passed to require the inclusion of LGBT people and people with disabilities in the K-12 social studies curriculum. Unfortunately, when the draft standards were released this fall there was no inclusion of LGBT people in the new standards despite the fact that a group of experts in LGBT history drafted a comprehensive report recommending specific topics for specific grades to be included. 

Where do we go from here?

Fortunately there are growing numbers of youth who have access to supportive adults in their school and over 3,000 schools have registered Gay-Straight Alliances. These are important factors that research shows have a significant impact on students’ feelings of safety and belonging at school. However, much more needs to be done. The silencing and invisibility of LGBT teachers, students and families in school communities perpetuates stereotypes and negative attitudes towards gender and sexual diversity. We need more teachers and administrators to be visible and public supporters of all of their students, particularly the ones who have been identified as most vulnerable and often most invisible in our school communities: LGBT youth.

If you want to find out how to do more, you can find a local chapter of GLSEN, P-FLAG, or other LGBT organization in your community to see what efforts are happening in your area. If you need legal advice and support the ACLU has a very strong LGBT rights initiative and can provide valuable resources and information. Here in central California, our CCC4IS continues to reach out to schools and youth-serving organizations to find ways to help all youth feel welcome and valued at school. For more information, and for the complete fact sheet, you can visit our Facebook page: