Research Roundup: How Can Schools Become Supportive Places for LGBTQ Students?

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Diverse smiling teens.

Suicide is one of the leading causes of death among young people—but it’s a bigger problem for some teens and young adults than others. A growing body of research about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth has found that they are more likely than their non-LGBTQ peers to think about, attempt, or commit suicide, largely due to bullying and harassment.

One factor that has been found to reduce LGBTQ teens’ risk of mental illness and suicide, and about which we’ve written a lot, is supportive families. Another is supportive school environments, with gay-straight alliances, zero tolerance bullying policies, and teachers and staff who know how to prevent harassment and get LGBTQ youth the support and mental health services they need.

Support at School Matters

Though studies have found that LGBTQ youth who report greater school connectedness and school safety also report lower suicidal ideation (thoughts about taking one’s life) and fewer suicide attempts, most of these have been based on self-report surveys.

Mark L. Hatzenbuehler, Michelle Birkett, Aimee Van Wagenen and Ilan H. Meyer, from Columbia University, Northwestern University and University of California, Los Angeles, wanted to investigate the association using more objective data.

Hatzenbuehler and his colleagues decided to look at the connection between where teens live and their risk for suicidal thoughts, plans and attempts.

For information on whether states and cities had positive school climates—for example, with safe spaces and gay-straight alliances—they turned to the 2010 School Health Profile Survey, compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For information about the incidence of suicidal thoughts, plans and attempts among LGBTQ youth, they turned to the 2005 and 2007 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Surveys from eight states and cities. These surveys track a range of health issues among high school students over the years.

LGBTQ students living in states and cities with more protective school climates reported having had fewer suicidal thoughts than those living in states and cities with less protective climates. In fact, the states and cities with the best school climates showed almost no disparity between LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ teens when it came to suicidal thoughts.

But it Takes Effort

In Seattle, the public school system has taken the research on LGBTQ youth and schools to heart and put in place policies and programs that aim to increase safety, family involvement, and student achievement for LGBTQ youth.

Pamela Hillard, Lisa Love, Heather M. Franks, B.A. Laris and Karin K. Coyle, from the Seattle Public Schools Health Education Office and ETR Associates, a research firm, wanted to find out how much bullying and harassment the students witnessed or experienced at school—and whether teachers intervened. In other words, were the strong district policies and programs aimed at reducing LGBTQ bullying and harassment in schools making a difference?

With funding from the CDC, Hillard and her colleagues surveyed 107 students in gay-straight alliance groups, or GSAs, at 13 schools. They also held focus groups with 154 students, some of whom were in GSAs and some not.

Among members of GSAs, LGBTQ students were significantly more likely than non-LGBTQ students to have been harassed. Students said teachers were most likely to deal with verbal harassment by stopping it and explaining why it is wrong. Teachers intervened in cases of physical harassment by trying to stop it.

Students noted that some teachers did a good job of stopping bullying in its tracks. Others did nothing to stop it.

Students in the focus groups said teachers could step in more effectively by taking these, and other, steps:

  • Address the problem immediately.
  • Use consistent and strong responses.
  • Explain why the words or actions were offensive.
  • Involve parents.
  • Involve the principal.
  • Have stricter consequences for inappropriate behavior.

GSA students also said talking about bullying and harassment as part of the school curriculum was a good way to combat bullying.

And Health Workers Need More Training to Be Part of the Solution

If teachers are part of the solution, so are school health professionals. But how well prepared are school nurses, counselors and social workers to meet the needs of LGBTQ students? To answer that question,  Inas Mahdi, Jenn Jevertson, Ronald Schrader, Anna Nelson and Mary M. Ramos, from the University of New Mexico and several other institutions, analyzed data from a survey of 183 people at a New Mexico school health conference.

They found that social workers (84.6%) and counselors (81.5%) were more likely than school nurses (55.8%) to say they had moderate or high knowledge of the health risks LGBTQ youth face, including higher rates of suicide and depression compared to their peers.

Many of the professionals didn’t know how to help, either. About half of school counselors and social workers said they knew little or nothing about LGBTQ community-based organizations that could help teens. Many didn’t know a counselor experienced with LGBTQ concerns to whom they could refer students.

What’s needed, Mahdi and her colleagues write, is better training of school health professionals. Schools, they say, could cover specific LGBTQ health risks and health disparities in trainings on bullying, violence, cultural competency, and suicide prevention.

Read the articles

“Protective School Climates and Reduced Risk for Suicide Ideation in Sexual Minority Youths” (abstract). American Journal of Public Health, Vol. 104, No. 2 (February 2014).

“‘They Were Only Joking’”: Efforts to Decrease LGBTQ Bullying and Harassment in Seattle Public Schools.” Journal of School Health, Vol. 84, No. 1 (January 2014).

“Survey of New Mexico School Health Professionals Regarding Preparedness to Support Sexual Minority Students.” Journal of School Health, Vol. 84, No. 1 (January 2014).

Find more articles about LGBTQ youth in our literature database. Publications discussed here do not necessarily reflect the views of NCFY, FYSB or the Administration for Children and Families.

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