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Are LGBT Youth Safer in School This Year?

LGBT stock photo - Clay Duda, JJIE.orgIt gets better. That’s the message many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth have heard since last fall when multiple cases received high-profile media attention concerning teens being bullied and/or committing suicide for being gay, or perceived to be gay. But is it safer for LGBT students entering school this year?

Some LGBT leaders are doubtful, despite the positive changes that are occurring, according to an article by the Keen News Service.

Eliza Byard, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, acknowledges that more schools are aware of what to do and more resources exist, but she told a reporter for the news service that there is still "a lot of work to be done."

“LGBT students still experience bullying and harassment at an alarming rate," said David McFarland of The Trevor Project, the leading national organization providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to LGBT and questioning youth.

In June 2011, JJIE reported that LGBT youth are more likely to experience abuse and bullying.  JJIE also told the story of a transgender youth who experienced bullying while in school.

What is being done?

On the federal level several actions have been taken, including an anti-bullying conference hosted by the While House in March 2011 and a number of letters issued to educators by the U.S. Department of Education.

On the state level, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut and Rhode Island have enacted anti-bullying legislation that explicitly prohibits bullying based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Currently, 14 states have similar laws.

Georgia passed a new anti-bullying law in 2010. Starting last month, schools must begin notifying parents when their child is bullied or bullies another.

What needs to be done?

"Schools and communities need to take concrete steps, creating safe spaces where youth can receive support from caring adults,” McFarland said.

Both the Trevor Project and GLSEN are among the organizations that provide training to help them do so, according to the article.

Why aren’t changes happening faster?

The economy and state budget cuts are one reason why changes aren’t happening fast enough for LGBT youth, as pointed out in the article.

Byard said federal anti-bullying legislation "would make an enormous difference." Right now, three pairs of bills in the U.S. House and Senate would address anti-LGBT bullying and harassment in schools and universities but seem unlikely to pass.

Ty Cobb who serves as legislative counsel at the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s LGBT civil rights organization, wrote  an opinion for JJIE about one of these bills, the Student Non-Discrimination Act, which is still pending in the House and Senate.

Even though there’s still room for improvement, things are better.

“For the first time, the challenges of LGBT youth are no longer invisible on a local, state, or national level," McFarland told the reporter.

JJIE has resources about bullying and a regularly updated Tumblr blog focused on the bullying of LGBT youth.

Ty Cobb On Safe Schools for LGBT Youth

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth across America are facing a crisis in the juvenile justice system as a result of harmful discrimination in their homes, schools and communities. Recent studies demonstrate that continued harassment of LGBT youth in their schools place them at a higher risk for involvement with the system. LGBT youth are more likely to skip school to avoid victimization and in the process face truancy charges. Additionally, other LGBT students end up in the system on assault or disorderly conduct charges after they try to defend themselves against bullying by their classmates. In other instances, LGBT youth are disproportionately targeted by school officials for punishment, often referring them to juvenile court for conduct that is more appropriately handled in school. These experiences unnecessarily prolong the involvement of LGBT youths in the juvenile justice system and often expose them to more restrictive dispositions. In an effort to reduce the number of LGBT youth in the juvenile justice system, more must be done to combat discrimination and harassment in schools.

Schools should be a safe haven for all students as well as a welcoming environment where opportunities are not limited by a student’s sexual orientation or gender identity. However, recent events, including an agreement between a California middle school and the Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Education (OCR) and the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice (DOJ), demonstrate that not enough is being done to protect LGBT youth in schools. The agreement between the California middle school and the government agencies followed a complaint from a parent whose 13 year-old gay son committed suicide following chronic sex-based harassment by his peers. The agreement requires the school to research, develop and implement policies that educate students and staff regarding the harmful effects of harassment, as well as educate staff regarding the proper investigation and means of eliminating such harassment. While the result of this agreement is commendable, it raises several disturbing issues relating to the treatment of LGBT youth in schools.

First, while school districts should already be engaged in creating a positive school climate where all students are afforded equal educational opportunities, some are not. Second, as OCR and DOJ made clear in the agreement, they do not have the power to investigate and make recommendations to prohibit harassment or discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. The government is limited by statute to addressing only sex discrimination, as there is no federal statute prohibiting harassment or discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. As a result, while an enforcement mechanism exists to regulate harassment and discrimination in schools, it is not explicit about doing so to protect LGBT youth. Consequently, LGBT youth continue to be at risk for harassment and discrimination in school, which subsequently increases their risk of entering the juvenile justice system. This devastating chain of events can be stopped if federal legislation, such as the Student Non-Discrimination Act, is passed.

The Student Non-Discrimination Act, which is pending in the House and Senate, would prohibit schools from discriminating against students based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Additionally, it would prevent discrimination against any public school student because of the actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity of a person with whom a student associates or has associated. With passage of this legislation, government organizations such as OCR and DOJ would have the authority to investigate and make recommendations to prohibit harassment or discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Such tools would make a significant contribution to ending harassment and bullying of LGBT youth in schools and could ultimately help reduce the number of LGBT youth that find themselves in the juvenile justice system.

Enjoy the opinion? Check out JJIE's series on LGBT issues:
["Accepting Me: LGBT Stories of Struggles, Discoveries and Triumphs"]