New research has found that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students who are severely bullied in middle and high school carry serious health and mental health problems into young adulthood, including depression, suicide attempts, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and risk for HIV.
The authors of the study, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Adolescent School Victimization: Implications for Young Adult Health and Adjustment (published in the Journal of School Health), say that it clearly demonstrates the importance of addressing and preventing LGBT victimization in schools and emphasizes the need for anti-bullying legislation to help protect this vulnerable population of students.
“We now have evidence of the lasting personal and social cost of failing to make our schools safe for all students,” says lead author, Stephen T. Russell, Ph.D., a professor of Family and Consumer Sciences at the University of Arizona. “Prior studies have shown that school victimization of LGBT adolescents affects their health and mental health. In our study we see the effects of school victimization up to a decade later or more. It is clear that there are public health costs to LGBT-based bullying over the long-term.”
The authors examined school victimization of 245 LGBT young adults, ages 21 to 25. They found that LGBT young adults who were victimized in school because of their sexual identity reported much higher health and adjustment problems, while students with low levels of school victimization had higher self-esteem and life satisfaction as young adults.
LGBT males were bullied more than LGBT females, and those who were victimized in were 5.6 times more likely to report having attempted suicide, 5.6 times more likely to report a suicide attempt that required medical care, 2.6 times more likely to report clinical levels of depression, and more than twice as likely to have been diagnosed with a sexually transmitted disease and to report risk for HIV infection, compared with peers who weren’t bullied.
Russell, who is also the president-elect of the Society for Research on Adolescence, helps schools and educators with anti-bullying strategies. He says the question he gets most often from educators is, “What can I do?”
“They wonder how they can really make a difference in the complicated lives of teenagers,” he says, “and what I try to help them understand is that they can make a huge difference by showing that they care.”
He points to a young person from a very small town in California who said that when he heard an adult say the word “gay” in a way that wasn’t derisive, it made a very positive difference in his life at school. That adult was his teacher.
What Else Can Educators Do?
Russell says educators can also support federal policies, such as The Safe Schools Improvement Act and The Student Non-Discrimination Act, to help provide guidance for dealing with anti-LGBT actions and bullying.
“We have really good research that finds that laws and policies create an environment where principals feel like they have guidance and support, and teachers feel like they have policy on their side when they intervene,” says Russell.
He says educators should set expectations about bullying at the beginning of the year and explain what the school policy is. He also recommends that educators minimize harassing language and attitudes that can lead to more severe bullying with a three-step process he calls, “Name it, claim it, stop it.”
What about when a student says “fag” or “that’s so gay”? Russell says educators should explain that there are gay and lesbian students in their school, that they deserve the same respect as everyone else, and that kind of language is not acceptable and cannot happen again.
“That’s why the policy is so important,” Russell says. “So educators know someone has their back when they intervene. They know homophobic behavior is wrong, but without a clear policy, they don’t know how parents, the community, or even the administration will react if they make an issue out of it.”
He says it’s clear that all educators want to create a space where everyone can learn – no matter what their personal values might be. Even educators who don’t feel comfortable with openly LGBT students most likely still want them to be safe from harassment and physical harm and to do well in school.
“It’s about providing an education for all children,” Russell says.
Educators can also help establish Gay-Straight Alliances at their schools, which says to students that their school is safe, open and accepting. They can incorporate LGBT issues into curriculum, by studying an LGBT poet in literature, for example, or an important figure in history. When kids from marginalized groups see themselves in the curriculum, it’s a key predictor in their success.
But the most important thing an educator can do is to care.
“It may seem like a no big deal, but the most resilient kids who experienced bullying said that the one thing that helped them was a single caring adult who cared for them even though they didn’t have to,” Russell says.
The National Education Association’s “Bully Free: It Starts With Me ” campaign aims to identify caring adults in schools and communities who are willing to help bullied students. These caring adults will agree to listen carefully to the bullied student who comes to them. They will also agree to take action to stop the bullying. NEA, in turn, promises to provide those caring adults with the resources they need to provide solace and support for the bullied student, ask the right questions, and take the appropriate actions needed to stop the bullying.