Much attention has been given in the past few years to the increased rate of suicide among teens and the connection it has to bullying in schools. Since 2010, when 15-year-old Justin Aaberg hanged himself after sustained bullying about his sexual orientation (Katz, 2010), focus on the effect of homophobic bullying on lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) teens has taken a permanent role in the cultural consciousness of the United States. As of 2013, 49 states have passed anti-bullying regulations. Of those, only fourteen specifically include the bullying of LGB youth within their provision (stopbullying.gov). Some sectors of the public are skeptical that including LGB issues in school curricula would reduce rates of bullying, with some states going as far as to mandate that no acknowledgement of homosexuality occur in schools. There is, however, merit to the argument that safe and inclusive schools for LGB students are safer for all students.
Many studies have been done examining the experience of LGB students regarding bullying. A 2010 nationwide survey found that 81.9% of LGB students report being verbally harassed, 38.3% report being physically harassed, and 18.3% report physical assault. Not all forms of bullying are active, as another set of data showed: 91.4% of middle and high school students reported they felt distress from hearing homophobic epithets. 99.4% had heard these from students, 56.9% had also heard them from teachers (GLSEN, 2011, p xiv).
There is a clear lack of understanding of and commitment to the well-being of LGB youth in many school systems. School staff indicate that bullying is an issue in their schools, with 41% reporting witnessing at least one incident of bullying a week. Staff working in middle schools were more likely to perceive bullying as a serious problem (59% to the 40% in the full study)(NEA, 2012, p. 12). Further demonstrating the lack of commitment to stop bullying, while 93% of school staff members acknowledged an existing bullying policy, only 54% had received any related training (p.12). Although these staff members see it as their job to step in to stop bullying, many reported receiving no instruction on how to do so and that their particular schools had not implemented any type of bullying prevention methods (p.13).
With victimization rates so high, it is important to understand the impact that bullying has on LGB students. Between 2001 and 2009, the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) tracked the rate at which adolescents engage in risk behaviors using the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System and found that LGB students were more likely to engage in risk behaviors in seven of the ten categories assessed(2011, p. 1). Overall, LGB students were 12% more likely to participate in risk behaviors than their heterosexual peers. Also included in these categories were students who reported having sexual contact with people of both same and different genders who did not identify as LGB (p. 2).
It is important, when discussing the need to reduce risk for LGB students to examine the scope of said risk. While much of the media focus is on suicide prevention, bullying can create underlying factors that affect a broad spectrum of behaviors. The CDC report examined risk behaviors in the following categories: behaviors that contribute to unintentional injury, including wearing a seatbelt, a bicycle helmet, being a passenger in a car where the driver has consumed alcohol, or driving after consuming alcohol; behaviors that contribute to violence, such as carrying a weapon or a gun, involvement in a physical altercation, sexual or intimate partner violence, and skipping school because of safety concerns; behaviors related to attempted suicide, ranging in severity from feelings of hopelessness to an attempt that required medical intervention; tobacco use; alcohol use; other drug use; sexual behaviors; diet; and weight control (2011, pp. 5-43).
Beyond risk behavior, research has shown that there are other areas effected by bullying. Biologically, bullying has been linked to suppressed immune functioning and higher levels of cortisol (Swearer, 2012, p.7). Victimization can affect academic performance and engagement, with LGB students averaging a GPA half a grade lower than their peers (PFLAG NYC), and with 29.1% of students reporting that they missed school because of the fear of being bullied (Espelage, 2012, p. 65). The psychological impacts of bullying can cause lasting depression, anxiety, and problematic behavior—as shown in the CDC research (Espelage, et al, 2008, p. 214).
The unsettling outcomes of bullying for LGB students are thoroughly reported, in both the large scale statistical sense and with the faces of its victims. What can we—the society that has largely suppressed the rights of LGB people, do? Research has shown that by naming the problem of homophobic bullying has made a substantial impact on the climate of schools that have adopted LGB inclusive bullying prevention language. In their research of inclusivity of policies’ effect on LGB youth, Hatzenbuehler and Keyes found that the schools with the most inclusive policies decreased the rate of suicide attempts by half, from 31.08% percent of students to 16.67% (2013, p. 523). Additionally, all students experienced less peer victimization in schools with LGB inclusive policies (2013, p. 524).
There is also support that youth empowerment programs like Gay/Straight Alliances (GSA) have meaningful influence decreasing bullying of LGB youth and suicide rates while increasing the perception of the school as a welcoming environment to both students and faculty (Russell, et al., 2008, p. 892). The focus of GSAs in schools can have many varying purposes; as a “safe space” for LGB students for students to hang out, as a place to receive advice or talk about one’s problems, as an advocacy group within the school, and/or as an activist organization within the school (p. 892). Through these reported findings, about GSAs and Anti-Bullying mandates, the importance of visibility and education to the increased safety of LGB students within schools.
Positive Behavior Intervention and Support (PBIS) is a data driven educational philosophy that focuses on the importance of proactively altering the environment in which a negative behavior occurs to prevent said behavior (Sugai & Horner, 2012, p. 56). School-wide PBIS is implemented as a way to create beneficial social culture, learning environment, and behavioral supports that produce higher academic achievement (DOE, 2010, p. 13). The system is created based on a handful of organizing principles established by stakeholders in the school environment, and the structure is built from the policy down to practical application based on those principles. By implementing changes on a system wide level, school-based PBIS allows for greater impact on all of the students, as well as providing consistent feedback and response from school staff.
PBIS operates on a three tier strategy, passed on public health prevention logic. Sugai and Horner, two of the foremost experts in the school-wide PBIS field, define tier I as such: “At Tier I, all students and staff are taught directly and formally about how to behave in safe, respectful, and responsible ways across all school settings. The emphasis is on teaching and encouraging positive social skills and character traits. If implemented well, most students will benefit and be successful” (2012, p. 57). Tier II involves targeted strategies for individuals with other supports as needed. Tier III provides intensive intervention, engaging with the support community to provide wraparound services (p.57).
PBIS has been successful in preventing bullying by teaching all members of the school community, staff and students alike, the necessary tools for necessary to actively discourage bullying behaviors. Sugai and Horner identify these as: “(a) what bullying looks like, (b) what to do before and when bullying behavior is observed, (c) how to teach others what to do, and (d) how to establish a positive and preventive environment that reduces the effectiveness of bullying behavior” (p. 56). It is within the last set of skills, establishing a positive and preventative environment, that the case for including issues of sexual orientation in all courses of study, particularly sexuality education, can be made.
It has been shown that PBIS is an effective method for managing issues surrounding bullying prevention in a school setting. Research also shows that creating an inclusive environment decreases both peer victimization generally, and specific bullying aimed at LGB youth. It stands to reason that incorporation of LGB issues lesson planning, combined with the principles of respect, safety, and responsibility espoused by the PBIS structure would create the best outcome in drastically reducing, if not eliminating, homophobic bullying. Following is a discussion of issues surrounding the implementation of sexual diversity lessons, focused on LGB inclusion, into a middle school curriculum.
Teaching about sexual orientation does not automatically equate to graphic explanations of two men engaging in sexual intercourse. What it does include is acknowledgement of sexual diversity as a natural part of living within our society. The National Sexuality Education Standards (NSES), a collaborative work between prominent originations in the sexuality and health education fields, defines a set of developmentally appropriate minimum level of education based on knowledge acquired by the end of four grade levels: 2nd, 5th, 8th, and 12th. For this discussion, the 5th and 8th grade standards under the category of Identity are referenced.
The NSES lays out core concepts: defining sexual orientation by the end of 5th grade, and understanding the difference between gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation, as well as explaining the range in gender role by the end of 8th grade. The NSES encourages students to independently seek out additional sources for information, including parents, and develop the ability to identify accurate, reliable resources. The NSES also encourages students to, by the end of the 8th grade, to be able to communicate respectfully with people of all genders and to examine the influences in their own life that impact the way they feel about their gender. Finally, NSES promotes involvement of students in demonstrating and cultivating respect and dignity for people of all genders and orientations (FoSE, 2011).
Some may argue that children in grade 5-8 are too young to begin receiving information about sexual orientation. To define middle school, we will make the assumption that children in these grades generally range from age 10 to 14. Developmentally, these children are moving from latency into adolescence. According to Erickson, this is the period where a child’s focus shifts from being a competent learner to fitting is with the desired peer group (Newman & Newman, 2009). This is also the time where the physiological changes of puberty and sexual attraction start. For girls, the mean age of menarche is 12.9, and for boys adrenarche onset occurs, generally, between age 12-14 (Kreiter, 2005, p.3). Beginning discussion of sexual diversity during early middle school will lay a solid foundation of knowledge for many of the questions that may awaken with puberty.
Some might express discomfort with the idea of teaching about sexual diversity at the middle school level because children at this age innocent and this type of inclusive lesson structure might give them ideas, and lead to action. Data suggests that early intervention using comprehensive sexuality education can reduce the number of children engaging in early sexual behavior (Erkut, et al, 2012, p. 492). Looking at the age at which LGB people are coming out, the average in 1991 was 25 years old, when tested again in 2009 the age had dropped to 16 (Shilo, & Savaya, 2011). Regarding bullying prevention, children as young as eleven have committed suicide as a result of being bullied about their actual or perceived sexual orientation (Plaisance & Johnson, 2009). Given these facts, the assessment that children in middle school are already thinking about and acting out regarding personal differences they perceive to be taboo.
Social interaction plays a large role in bullying behaviors. Students peak in their negative attitudes of LGB people around age 13 (Poteat & Anderson, 2012, p. 1407). This is correlated this to the students’ social dominance orientation, which is essentially social climbing on a discrimination ladder. In previous research, which involved two sets of data, taken six months apart, findings show the ranges for negative attitudes about LGB people were wide on the individual scale during the first survey, and surprisingly even wider on the second, although the group mean remained largely the same (Poteat, 2007, p. 1833). The connection that adolescents find like-minded people with whom to develop peer groups, homophily, indicate that peer groups can either be tempered or fueled by the way LGB issues are discussed within the group (Poteat, 2007, p. 1838; Swearer, 2012, p. 6).
This point emphasizes the need to begin including LGB issues before peer groups form their group identity. In groups where one person engages in bullying behavior, other group members are more likely to take part (Salmivalli, Huttunen, & Lagerspetz, 1997 in Swearer, 2012), as well as having higher risk factors for taking part in other risk behaviors (Cook et al., 2010 in Swearer, 2012) including carrying weapons, missing classes, and using drugs and alcohol.
Several factors have been identified to have a negative correlation to homophobic attitudes: perceived parent attitudes, classroom respect norms, empathy, ability to see the perspective of others, and the presence of LGB friends (Poteat et al., 2013). The NSES address most of these issues in their parameters for the 5th grade level by requiring students demonstrate respect and dignity for others and finding ways to promote that value within the community (2011). Using PBIS frameworks across the school, starting in middle school, there are three levels of implementation to create a safer environment for LGB students throughout their middle and high school careers.
Best practices suggest several ways to passively create safe environments for LGB students. Educators can use inclusive and accurate language, such as partner in the place of husband/wife and LGBTQ rather than the umbrella term “gay,” or asking questions in a manner that does not assume the student is heterosexual. Deliberate use of LGB inclusive decorations in the classroom is a great way to increase visibility of LGB people without necessarily igniting open discussion about the topic. This could also serve to identify the educator as an ally and safe, trusted adult for LGB students.
It is also important that the educator be vigilant of homophobic bullying and stop it every time. This does not just include intervening with physical acts of aggression, but also calling out homophobic language and targeted put downs to LGB (actual or perceived) students. PBIS suggests using a scripted, neutral response like, “That word is hurtful, please choose another.” With younger students especially, it is also important to explain why the specific language is not acceptable.
In addition to passive methods of inclusion, educators can begin to address issues of invisibility and misinformation. Research supports that familiarity with LGB issues decreases negative attitudes and incidences of homophobic bullying behaviors. From this, one can assume incorporation of sexual diversity examples into the curriculum. One way to do this is to use the Window and Mirror theory. This style of pedagogy promotes acceptance of LGB people, gives a more complete view of history, and encourages all students to challenge stereotypes about LGB people, while allowing space for LGB students to see their experience reflected in the curriculum (Style, 1996, in GLSEN 2012).
Along with incorporating LGB inclusive lessons into curricula, educators can support the formation of a LGB organization. As shown above, availability of a safe space for LGB students in the form of GSAs substantially increase perception of safety in the school environment for both students and teachers. Encourage participation of LGB students, but be respectful if students do not want to participate. There are also opportunities at older levels for student led organizations focusing on social justice, and at younger levels encouraging respect and friendship.
PBIS dictates that the systemic change creates expectations of behavior, and that those expectations are a hard line from the day of implementation. With issues regarding homophobic bullying, intervention may be active from the beginning, but it takes time to change the ingrained attitudes that inform those behaviors. The combination of high expectations for behavior requires educative components to make attitudinal changes manifest within the student as opposed to behavior changes instigated by fear of punishment.
Using measures to desensitize and familiarize all students with the issues that affect LGB students, coupled with top down administrative support, will eventually change the atmosphere of the school. The expectation of respect for all students and removing the taboo from LGB issues will combine a series of successful educational strategies proven to reduce rates of homophobic bullying and, by extension, suicide in LGB youth. There are also implications for reducing group based risk behaviors and bullying related mental health complications. Overall, creating a welcoming inclusive environment for LGB students will provide a more successful learning environment for all students.
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