Reading, writing, arithmetic … and a history lesson on Stonewall. Educators and counselors are taking on a new role today as advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth.

The 2011 National School Climate Survey conducted by the Gay Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) leaves no doubt that LGBTQ teens are prime targets of victimization in schools. GLSEN works with educators, policymakers, community leaders and students nationwide to address anti-LGBT behavior and bias in schools. Their study of 8,584 middle and high school LGBTQ youths found that eight out of 10 experienced some form of harassment at school in the previous year — from name-calling to physical assault — related to their sexual orientation.

"This targeted bullying is extremely detrimental to LGBTQ teens who are just beginning to develop their own identities. It targets the core of who they are," says educational psychologist Jessica R. Toste, PhD, a postdoctoral research fellow at Vanderbilt University who is active with GLSEN.

In fact, teens bullied on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender nonconformity suffer greater consequences than kids bullied for reasons that are not tied to marginalized social identities. Paul Poteat, PhD, assistant professor of counseling and developmental psychology at Boston College, and his colleagues found that bias-based victimization was linked to lower grades and higher rates of truancy, substance abuse, threats with weapons and property damage at school compared with teens bullied for other reasons (American Journal of Public Health, 2012). Youths identifying as LGBTQ also are at greater risk of suicidal thoughts and suicidal attempts compared with straight-identified teens (Robinson and Espelage, Educational Researcher, 2011).

The signs of a hostile school environment are often covert. A coach may look the other way when a boy is teased for not fitting the traditional male norm. Homophobic remarks may go unchallenged in class. "There is silence around issues of sexual orientation and gender identification," says Anneliese A. Singh, PhD, associate professor in counseling and human development services at the University of Georgia, Athens.

One of the most disturbing GLSEN findings is that three out of five LGBTQ teens said they did not feel safe at school. The places most feared were locker rooms, bathrooms and physical education classes. About one in three of the students said they skipped a day of school in the past month because of safety concerns.

Students can't succeed in school when they don't feel safe, says Toste. "A hostile school climate leads to truancy, depression, substance abuse … and these issues influence academic achievement." (Toomey et al, Journal of Adolescence, 2012.)

Offsetting risks, improving school climate

Along with the disquieting picture of discrimination come hopeful data from schools that have taken steps to improve the climate for LGBTQ students. Studies consistently demonstrate that doing so leads to lower levels of LGBTQ victimization, substance abuse, academic decline, truancy and suicide attempts (Espelage et al, School Psychology Review, 2008) ("Teaching Respect: LGBT-inclusive Curriculum and School Climate," 2012, GLSEN) (Pediatrics, 2011, Hatzenbuehler).

Changes in the following five areas have produced the best outcomes:

  • Curriculum. Students in schools with an LGBT-inclusive curriculum were more likely to say their peers were accepting of LGBT people by a margin of 67 percent vs. 33 percent (GLSEN, 2011). Such a curriculum includes positive depictions of LGBT people, history and events. The material can be integrated into existing curricula, says Nicholas C. Heck, a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at the University of Montana who studies LGBT mental health. "In your civil rights lesson, teach Harvey Milk alongside Martin Luther King," he says.

    Teachers can infuse diversity into discussions with videos that challenge notions about masculinity and femininity, says Dorothy Espelage, PhD, professor of educational psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She recommends "Straightlaced" as one example of a film confronting gender stereotypes and expectations among teens (see digital extra at the end of this article). Libraries can stock books about LGBT youth. When discussing families with younger children, teachers can raise awareness of diversity by noting that some children have two dads or moms, suggests Poteat.

    For more ideas, GLSEN offers curricular guides. Psychologist Nathan Grant Smith, PhD, assistant professor at McGill University, has also developed a teaching module on sexual orientation for high school teachers you can use at www.apa.org/ed/precollege/topss/lessons.

  • Staff. Having a supportive school staff is critical to how safe LGBTQ students feel at school, psychologists say. "We need to reach out to everyone who comes in contact with students in K–12 — teachers, principals, guidance counselors, custodians, parents," about sensitivities, says Debra Mollen, PhD, associate professor and director of counseling psychology of the master's program at Texas Woman's University.

    Singh, who trains school counselors to be effective LGBTQ advocates, includes tips on how to navigate school system politics and how to teach students to advocate for themselves (Professional School Counseling, 2010). She advises counselors to share research with school staff and key community figures about the repercussions of discrimination and bullying to get "buy-in" for intervention measures. Singh adds that some school counselors will also have to teach administrators and teachers that the role of a school counselor includes social justice and advocacy.

    Espelage stresses the importance of language in creating safer schools. "There is a strong longitudinal association between homophobic language and bullying during middle school," she found in her research (Journal of Adolescent Health, 2012). "Teachers and administrators need to stop using phrases like ‘Stop acting like a girl' or ‘That's so gay.' And they need to intervene to stop it when they hear it from students."

  • Intervention. The anti-bullying policies are of little use if teachers fail to recognize or intervene when there is a problem. In the 2011 GLSEN survey, 60 percent of LGBTQ students said they failed to report an incident of harassment or assault to school staff because they thought no action would be taken or feared that it would make things worse. And a third of students who did report incidents said that school staff did nothing in response.

    "Some teachers will just wait to see if it happens again," says Espelage, but these incidents need immediate attention and follow-up. "School personnel must know what they are required to do when they hear any anti-LGBTQ remark or name-calling or witness bullying." Schools should also have a policy against retaliation to encourage student reporting, she adds.

    Teachers and counselors may violate the law if they don't act. Also, some simply need to be educated that there are laws that protect their jobs if they report an incident and take a stand — a problem in schools where there is a homophobic climate, says Singh. In some parts of the country, there may be a backlash if a teacher or counselor tries to assert an unpopular position, so it's easier for them to avoid the conflict, she explains. She notes that while racial slurs are taboo, it is still okay at some schools to laugh when someone is called a "faggot."

  • Gay-straight alliances. Establishing a gay-straight alliance (GSA) is another proven way to create a more welcoming environment for LGBTQ students and promote a sense of belonging. A GSA is a student-led group open to all students — gay and straight — to promote peer support and educate the school community about LGBTQ issues.

    Having a GSA sanctioned by administrators sends a message that victimization is not tolerated at the school, says Heck. The GSA can take many forms. Some meet with a guidance counselor. Others function as a club during activity periods. Some groups are charged with organizing school-wide events to raise awareness.

    In a study, Heck compared LGBT young adults (ages 18 to 20) who attended a high school with a GSA with those who didn't. Those who had GSAs at their high school experienced less victimization — and better outcomes — than those who didn't. The findings suggested further that having a GSA may offset the risks of alcoholism, depression and psychological distress among LGBT youth (School Psychology Quarterly, 2011). Others have found that GSAs were useful in helping LGBT students identify supportive teachers and staff at their schools.

  • School policies. Not surprisingly, LGBTQ students at schools with comprehensive anti-bullying policies (that include protections for sexual orientation and gender identity or expression) reported fewer homophobic remarks and less victimization than those without these specific protections (GLSEN, 2011). Students at schools with the comprehensive policies were also more likely to report bullying to staff and staff were more likely to intervene when homophobic remarks were heard. Only 7.4 percent attend a school with a comprehensive anti-bullying policy, according to GLSEN.

    "With increasing support for the federal Safe Schools Improvement Act, which provides policy recommendations including an enumerated anti-bullying policy, we are getting closer to creating real change in the safe schools movement," says Toste.

More research needed

What's next? Poteat wants to see strategies developed that would prevent prejudice and homophobic teasing before it happens. "We need to work on protective policies at the system level to change that," he says. In the Journal of Counseling Psychology, 2011, he writes, "Counseling psychologists should collaborate on prevention and intervention efforts and address issues of prejudice that underlie the victimization that many youth experience."

Building resilience in children is another area that is ripe for research, experts say. What's needed there is a better understanding of the social skills kids are not learning at home that make them vulnerable when bullied. In addition, psychologists want more insights on the kind of support from parents or peers that can promote resilience in children who are bullied.

The bottom line is that any actions and policies that make the school climate safer benefit all students, according to research by Espelage and colleagues (School Psychology Review, 2008). Kids, regardless of their sexual orientation, have lower levels of depression, drug use and truancy at schools that don't tolerate discrimination.

Eve Glicksman is a writer in the Philadelphia area.