America’s High Schools More Supportive of LGBT Youth, But Majority of Gay Teens Still Feel Unsafe at School, Says New Report

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Earlier this month, the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) released its 2011 National School Climate Survey, finding for the first time since the survey began in 1999 that, for LGBT teens in the United States, biased language and victimization levels have decreased while access to school resources and support have increased.

Researchers say that in 2011 a “significant decrease” in assaults and harassment based on sexual orientation occurred in the nation’s high schools, alongside small increases in the numbers of students attending schools with gay-and-straight student alliances and having access to LGBT-related resources through their school’s computer network.

The most recent survey consisted of more than 8,500 responses from students in 50 states and the District of Columbia. According to researchers, creating safer school environments for LGBT students is heavily connected to the availability of school-based resources and support services, such as gay and straight student alliances and comprehensive anti-bullying policies. 

The report found that schools with Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) were more likely to foster positive conditions for LGBT youth, with 54.9 percent of students attending schools with such organizations reporting that they felt unsafe on campus due to their gender expression or sexual orientation, compared to 70.6 of LGBT teens attending schools that do not have GSAs.

Additionally, researchers state that schools with LGBT-inclusive curriculums and supportive personnel generally felt safer on campus than students that did not, with 43.4 percent of LGBT teens attending schools with more inclusive curriculums reporting that they did not feel safe at school while 63.6 percent of teens attending schools with less inclusive curriculums stated that they had safety concerns while on campus. In schools with more supportive personnel, 53.1 percent of LGBT teens reported not feeling safe on campus, while 76.9 percent of students attending classes at schools with personnel less supportive of LGBT youth reported not feeling safe at their schools. Additionally, students attending classes with more supportive personnel also posted higher grade point averages, had a lower likelihood of skipping classes and were more likely to pursue higher education than teens attending schools with less supportive staff and faculty. 

The report also notes that schools with generic bullying policies, which do not include specific protections for students based on gender expression and sexual orientation, had greater levels of student victimization and fewer instances of staff intervening when students were subjected to homophobic remarks from other classmates.

According to the researchers, however, 45.7 percent of LGBT students reported that their schools did not have GSAs, and only 16.8 percent of respondents stated that they were taught positive representations of LGBT individuals in their classes. Only 7.4 percent of students reported that their schools had comprehensive anti-bullying policies and a little over half of the total respondents said they could identify more than six educators supportive of LGBT youth at their schools.

Four out of five LGBT students reported being subjected to verbal harassment from classmates in 2011 on the basis of their sexual orientation while 63.9 percent of LGBT teens said that they had been harassed at school due to their gender expression, the report states. An estimated 18.3 percent of LGBT teens said that they were physically assaulted on campus last year due to their sexual orientation, while 12.4 percent of the respondents said that they were physically assaulted at school based on their gender expression in 2011. Almost 85 percent of LGBT students said that they heard the term “gay” used as a negative descriptor, while 71.3 percent of respondents said that they frequently overheard homophobic slurs at their school.

The report states that 63.5 percent of all LGBT students felt unsafe at their schools due to their sexual orientation, while 43.9 percent of LGBT students felt unsafe on campus because of their gender expression. More than a third of respondents reported that they had missed an entire day of classes because they felt concerns for their safety, with students reporting more frequent instances of harassment having lower grade point averages than LGBT students that reported fewer instances of harassment.

Approximately 60.4 percent of respondents said that they have never reported an incident of harassment to their school personnel.

Researchers also note that a “considerable number” of LGBT students have reported discriminatory policies in place by their school, particularly the treatment of LGBT relationships compared to heterosexual ones, such as policies pertaining to school dances and public displays of affection. Additionally, the report also found that LGBT students that were “out” had higher levels of psychological “well-being,” despite being more likely to be victimized by their classmates because of their gender expression or sexual orientation.