On July 8, 2008 I testified at a congressional hearing on school safety and bullying prevention. There I met Sirdeaner L. Walker, the mother of eleven-year-old Carl Walker-Hoover, who had recently died by suicide. Walker described in her testimony the bullying that Carl received at school and that he was repeatedly called gay. She described herself as an involved parent who tried to do everything right, and stated that she had informed school administrators about the bullying her son was subjected to at school.
Homophobia within districts is pervasive and has profound effects on students, as evident by Carl Walker-Hoover’s suicide as well as Jaheem Herrera’s. Both eleven-year-old boys captured the attention of the media and the nation when they took their own lives in separate states within ten days of each other last April after being bullied and called gay at school.
What could these schools have done differently to protect these two young boys? The issue of bullying is not a new problem within school systems, as great measures have been initiated by legislators and educators to protect students from physical violence within school buildings. However, the topic of homophobia— and more specifically the victimization of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth—has not received the same amount of attention.
According to a survey released in 2005, “From Teasing to Torment: School Climate in America—A Survey of Students and Teachers,” conducted by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), the second most common motive for harassing adolescent students is sexual orientation, and 90 percent of LGBT students reported verbal or physical harassment within the previous year, in comparison to 62 percent of their non-LGBT peers. As a result, LGBT students were three times more likely to consider school unsafe.
Furthermore, the GLSEN survey indicated that LGBT students were less likely to report incidents of victimization to school staff than non-LGBT students, due to the belief that action would not be taken.
There is no lack of literature substantiating the need for increased support and services for LGBT youth; however, there are barriers preventing such measures from being put into practice. To overcome these barriers and take action, awareness must be raised at the school level in the following areas: the issues facing LGBT youth, the need for school intervention despite the lack of current school support as well as the barriers to school intervention. Then, recommendations for future school interventions should be made.
The lack of family connection, peer connection, or positive school environment experienced by many LGBT youth within school systems, specifically, the lack of resources and support provided to LGBT adolescents. Yet GLSEN noted that when proper services are provided, such as anti-harassment policies that protect LGBT students, they serve as protective factors against both at-school victimization and subsequent health risk behaviors. Moreover, failure to protect LGBT students has created negative repercussions for school systems, as legal action has been taken against schools if their policies discriminate against LGBT students—for example, when gay/straight alliances (GSAs) are prohibited on campus.
What to Do
To help increase the support for LGBT youth and overcome the barriers within a school system, follow these guidelines:
- Establish strict anti-harassment policies that include sexual orientation and gender identity/expression within your school district.
- Provide education to every level (students, staff and faculty) to increase awareness about the issues and myths surrounding sexual orientation and gender identity/expression.
- Make student counseling clubs such as GSAs, and community resources available for LGBT youth to receive mental health services and support.
The challenges facing LGBT youth are too great to ignore. School personnel need to step into the role of LGBT advocates and guardians and bridge the gap between research and practice.
Scott Poland is a contributing writer for District Administration and a past president of the National Association of School Psychologists. Christina Tsonas, a psychology trainee at Nova Southeastern University, assisted with this article.