Schools would be required to track anti-gay bullying under new federal proposal

June 26, 2013
Photo by Quinn Dombrowski

Photo by Quinn Dombrowski

For the first time, the federal education department is proposing that schools collect data about anti-gay bullying in its biennial survey of civil rights compliance on school campuses, a move advocates said could drive policies to reduce bullying and improve school climate.

In an announcement posted Friday in the Federal Register, the Department of Education proposed adding sexual orientation, as well as religion, to the types of alleged student harassment schools will be required to report. Data are already collected about student harassment based on gender, race, national origin or disability, which are considered protected classes under federal law. Federal civil rights laws do not cover harassment based on sexual orientation.

A 2011 survey of 8,584 gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth found that six out of ten said they felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation. Source: Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, National Climate Survey, 2011.

Since 1968, the department’s Civil Rights Data Collection Survey has gathered information about student discipline, retention, harassment and other issues on campus; the data are broken down by race, ethnicity and gender and are used to highlight disparities and monitor and enforce civil rights laws.

The sexual orientation harassment question is among several additional categories the education department is proposing to add to its next survey. Other proposed changes include new inquiries about involuntary student transfers between schools, the number of school days missed in out-of-school suspensions, and the number of school psychologists, social workers and school resource officers employed by schools. The proposed new survey questions would be asked of every school district in the country during the 2013-14 and 2015-16 school years; the public comment period on the proposed changes will close Aug. 20, 2013.

Advocates praised the inclusion of anti-gay bullying in the data collection as a necessary step in efforts to improve the safety and mental health of gay, lesbian and transgender students at school.

“The LGBT-inclusive data collection may seem like a wonky goal,” wrote Eliza Byard, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, a New York-based advocacy group, referring to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students, in a blog post. “But let me tell you, data drives decision-making, and what is measured is what is valued when it comes to government action.”

Teachers are less likely to intervene in harassment related to sexual orientation, gender presentation and body size than to harassment related to race, religion or disability, according to an April report by the American Educational Research Association. When specific groups, such as lesbian, gay and transgender students, are listed as protected by anti-bullying school policies, all students feel safer and report less harassment in schools, according to research cited in the report.

In a national of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth, students reported how frequently they hear anti-gay comments at school. Source: 2011 National School Climate Survey, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network.

A 2011 survey of 8,584 students between the ages of 13 and 20 found that eight out of 10 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students experienced harassment at school in the past year and nearly a third skipped at least one day of school in the past month because of safety concerns, according to the National School Climate Survey conducted by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. A March study in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence found that targeted harassment and victimization contributed to higher levels of depression and suicidal tendencies in sexual-minority youth compared to heterosexual youth.

“This is a big deal,” said Dorothy Espelage, an education researcher and co-chair of the American Educational Research Association’s task force on bullying prevention. “We’ve long recognized the need for more data collection for LGBTQ youth.” She noted, though, that the proposed new survey question will not ask students to identify their sexual orientation in reporting their experiences with alleged bullying.

California collects its own data on anti-gay bullying through the California Healthy Kids Survey, a statewide survey developed for the state Department of Education by WestEd, an education research organization. According to the 2008-2010 survey, the latest available, 13 percent of seventh grade boys and 10 percent of seventh grade girls in California reported having been bullied or harassed because of their sexual orientation or their perceived sexual orientation.

The proposed collection of new data comes as San Francisco Unified School District announced a significant reduction in the number of middle school students who reported hearing anti-gay slurs, such as “that’s so gay,” and derogatory names at school. The district added a question about anti-gay slurs to the Youth Risk Behavior Survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; no other district in the state added such a question.

In 2011, 64 percent of all middle school students in San Francisco reported hearing a harassing statement based on sexual orientation in the past year, compared to 89 percent of all students in 2007 who reported having heard such statements.

“We look at the data really closely and share the data with teachers,” said Ilsa Bertolini from the Student, Family, and Community Support Department of SFUSD, who credits the hard work of teachers, staff, administrators, school nurses, psychologists, social workers, counselors and students for the decline in anti-gay slurs.

“The work we do in the middle schools is extensive in terms of professional development,” Bertolini said. “It’s a very important subject to them and they want to change the culture of their schools.”

The professional development includes practicing scenarios outlined in a worksheet titled “What Do You Say to ‘That’s So Gay!'” Some schools refer students who use offensive language to the Gay-Straight Alliance club, which has members who are trained to talk about how the words affect them, Bertolini said.

The referral can be effective. “Students sometimes end up joining the GSA,” she said.

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