LGBTQ Bullying and Sexual Bullying in Schools
LGBTQ Bullying and Sexual Bullying in Schools
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter discusses the bullying of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students in schools. It identifies several religious and political dimensions of LGBT bullying and offers strategies for acknowledging and addressing these issues. It considers the nature and extent of sexual bullying/harassment in schools and the impact of sexual bullying/ harassment on victims. It discusses programs and strategies for preventing sexual bullying/harassment in schools.
We must never assume that justice is on the side of the strong. The use of power must always be accompanied by moral choice.
This chapter discusses the prevalence of LGBT bullying, how school personnel respond to LBGT bullying, the impact of bullying based on known or presumed gay or lesbian sexual orientation, and school-based strategies that minimize or prevent antigay bullying. It identifies and discusses several religious and political dimensions of LGBT bullying and offers strategies for acknowledging and addressing these religious and political issues. The chapter then turns to the nature and extent of sexual bullying/harassment in schools and the impact of sexual bullying/harassment on victims and discusses programs and strategies for preventing sexual bullying/harassment in schools.
This chapter will refer to both the LGBT population and the LGBTQ population in various places. This is because some studies have focused exclusively on the LGBT population while others focus more broadly on the LGBTQ population. LGBT refers to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth, and the “Q” refers to youth questioning their sexuality or youth who experience same-sex physical and romantic attraction but who do not self-identify (Moe, Leggett, & Perera-Diltz, 2011). Sexual orientation is defined as the direction of emotional, cognitive, and sexual attraction and its expression, including heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality, and asexuality.
(p.41) Gender expression is defined as all the external characteristics and behaviors socially defined as either masculine or feminine, including dress, mannerisms, speech patterns, and social interactions. Homophobia is defined as a dislike, mistrust, or hatred of gays and lesbians. Transphobia is defined as a dislike, mistrust, or hatred of transgendered persons. Heterosexism is defined as the assumption that heterosexuality is the only valid, or even existing, form of sexual identity or family life.
Prevalence of LGBT Bullying
LGBT students face unrelenting bullying and harassment by their peers in many U.S. schools (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, n.d.,b). A 2009 national survey conducted by Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) (2010) that involved over 7,000 LGBT students between the ages of 13 and 21 provides ample evidence of the onslaught of verbal and physical bullying. The authors of this GLSEN study found that 84.6% of LGBT were verbally harassed (e.g., called names or threatened) at school because of their sexual orientation, and 63.7% were verbally harassed because of their gender expression; 40.1% of LGBT students were physically harassed (e.g., pushed or shoved) at school in the past year because of their sexual orientation, and 27.2% were physically harassed because of their gender expression; 18.8% of LGBT students were physically assaulted (e.g., punched, kicked, injured with a weapon) because of their sexual orientation, and 12.5% were physically assaulted because of their gender expression; 52.9% of LGBT students were harassed or threatened by their peers via electronic mediums (e.g., text messages, e-mail, instant messages or postings on Internet sites such as Facebook); 88.9% of LGBT students heard “gay” used in a negative way (e.g., “that’s so gay”) frequently or often at school; 72.4% of LGBT students heard other homophobic remarks (e.g., “dyke” or “faggot”) frequently or often at school; 62.6% of LGBT students heard negative remarks about gender expression frequently or often at school. Diaz, Kosciw, & Greytak (2010) found that transgender students experience higher rates of in-school victimization and lower levels of school connectedness than lesbian, gay, and bisexual students who are not transgender. The authors of the GLSEN (2010) study reported that LGBT students’ experiences with more severe forms of bullying and harassment (i.e., physical assault and physical harassment) have remained relatively constant since 1999.
(p.42) Sanders (2010) powerfully describes the psychic terror facing LGBT students everyday in our public schools. He states:
…every LGBT person is always and everywhere at risk of becoming the target of violence solely because of sexual orientation or gender identity…beyond the inflicting of individual pain, violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people has effects far beyond the individual target…while a majority of LGBT people may avoid ever becoming the victim of a violence, none will be able to avoid the psychic terror that is visited upon LGBT people with each reminder that this world is one in which people are maimed and killed because of their sexual and gender identities. It is this psychic terror that makes life so difficult for many LGBT people. It is this psychic terror that does the heavy lifting of instrumental, systematic violence. It intends to silence and to destroy from within. (para. 10)
It should also be noted that straight students who do not conform to socially defined characteristics and behaviors (i.e., not acting “masculine enough” or “feminine enough”) also face relentless bullying in our schools. For example, it has been estimated that for every lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth who is bullied, four straight students who are perceived to be gay or lesbian are bullied (National Mental Health Association, 2002).
How Do School Personnel Respond to LGBTQ Bullying?
Eighty percent of a national sample of gay students reported that school employees do little or nothing to stop antigay behavior when they witness it (Gould, 2011), and 34% of LGBT victims who did report a bullying incident stated that school staff did nothing in response to their report (GLSEN, 2010). Not surprisingly, over half (62%) of the victims of bullying based on sexual orientation or gender expression did not report the incident to adults in school because they believed that little or no action would be taken or that the situation could become worse if reported (GLSEN, 2010).
Impact of Bullying Based on Known or Presumed Gay or Lesbian Sexual Orientation
This relentless verbal and sometimes physical bullying has a significant impact on the mental health and school performance of LGBT victims. Compared with heterosexual and gender-conforming youth, LGBTQ youth experience (p.43) higher levels of isolation, runaway behavior, homelessness, domestic violence, anxiety, violent victimization, substance abuse, and pregnancy (National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners [NAPNAP], 2011). LGBTQ youth are also more than twice as likely as their heterosexual peers to be depressed, engage in self-harming behavior, and think about or attempt suicide (Russell & Joyner, 2002). In fact, suicide remains the third leading cause of death of LGBT youth (D’Augelli et al., 2005).
Being victimized in school because of one’s sexual orientation or gender expression also impacts school performance in several important ways. Table 4.1 summarizes the latest research findings on the impact of LGBT bullying on school performance. As seen in Table 4.1, LGBT students who are victims of chronic bullying do not feel safe at school and, therefore, miss a lot of school, which often leads to lower academic grades and lower GPAs. There is also (p.44)
Table 4.1 Impact of GLBT Bullying on School Performance
Compared With Other Students, Many Victims of GLBT Bullying
Do not feel safe at school
Three times as many victims of GLBT bullying reported feeling unsafe at school compared with non-LGBT students (20% vs. 6%). Sixty-one percent of LGBT students felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation, and 39.9% felt unsafe because of how they expressed their gender.
Miss a lot of school
Three times as many victims of GLBT bullying missed classes (29.1% vs. 8.0%), and they were four times likelier to have missed at least one day of school (30.0% vs. 6.7%) in the past month compared with the general population of secondary school students.
Have lower levels of educational achievement and lower educational aspirations
LGBT students who were frequently harassed because of their sexual orientation or gender expression had grade point averages almost half a grade lower than students who were less often harassed (2.7 vs. 3.1). LGBT students were also more likely to report that they did not plan to pursue any type of postsecondary education or obtain a high school diploma compared with a national sample of students (9.9% vs. 6.6%).
School-Based Strategies That Minimize or Prevent Antigay Bullying
There is growing evidence that several concrete steps can be taken by school officials to minimize antigay bullying in schools and create a more welcoming and safe environment for LGBTQ students (see Box 4.1).
First and foremost, every school should establish a gay–straight alliance (GSA). GSAs provide a safe haven and critical support for LGBT students, particularly in schools where there is a hostile climate toward LGBT students (Diaz et al., 2010; Kosciw, Diaz, & Greytak, 2008; Szalacha, 2003). Toomey, Ryan, Diaz, & Russell (2011) found that the presence of a high school GSA was associated with better young adult well-being as well as more college-level educational attainment and that their study “builds on prior work by documenting that the existence of a GSA has a positive influence on the lives of LGBT young people. Our findings have implications for school-based personnel in that they provide one avenue through which professionals may offer and support a positive school environment for LGBT young people. Schools should support these school-based clubs given that they offer the potential for positive development and greater educational (p.45) attainment” (p. 184). The Gay-Straight Alliance Network is a youth leadership organization that connects school-based gay–straight alliances to each other and community resources through peer support, leadership development, and training. The GSA Network supports young people in starting, strengthening, and sustaining GSAs. Detailed information about the GSA Network can be found at http://www.gsanetwork.org/.
Having the support of and access to supportive educators is also important. Victims of anti-LGBTQ bullying who feel they have the support of and access to at least one adult are more likely to feel safer while at school, to miss less school, and to report bullying (Kosciw et al., 2008; Moe et al., 2011; Russell, Seif, & Truong, 2001). The presence of supportive educators can have a significant positive impact on LGBT students’ psychological well-being and longer-term educational aspirations (GLSEN, 2010).
Since there is currently no federal law that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation at school (Shah, 2011), a third strategy involves the development and enforcement of comprehensive bullying/harassment policies. Comprehensive policies send a message that the safety of all students, including LGBTQ students, is taken seriously by school administrators and that bias-based bullying and harassment will not be tolerated in the school (Diaz et al., 2010). Schools that have already implemented comprehensive antibullying policies that explicitly include sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression have seen increased rates of staff intervention and lower rates of LGBTQ bullying (GLSEN, 2010; Shah, 2011). The current absence of a federal law prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation at school has led Senator Al Franken (D-MN) to propose the inclusion of the Student Non-Discrimination Act, which includes specific language to protect students from being bullied because of their sexual orientation, as part of the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Senator Franken’s legislation is in addition to the Safe Schools Improvement Act, proposed by Sens. Casey (D-PA) and Kirk (R-IL), which would “require schools and districts that accept federal funds to establish codes of conduct that specifically prohibit bullying and harassment for any reason, including for students’ sexual orientation and gender identity” (Shah, 2011, p. 14).
A fourth strategy is an inclusive school curriculum that incorporates the achievements of gays and lesbians throughout history as well as positive representations of LGBT people, history, and events. This type of inclusive (p.46) curriculum has been shown to improve an individual LGBT student’s school experiences and school connectedness (GLSEN, 2010; Hart & Parmeter, 1992; Linsley, 2001). Schools can also provide age-appropriate instruction on sexual orientation in health and sexuality curricula (GLSEN, n.d.). Schools should also ensure that the guidance department and school library include pamphlets and books that contain age-appropriate and accurate information about the LGBTQ population (Hart & Parmeter, 1992; Linsley, 2001). Accurate and truthful information about sexual orientations and gender expression “helps students to understand and respect people who may seem ‘different’, an essential lesson for ensuring stability in our diverse society” (Macgillivray, 2004, p. 149).
Religious and Political Dimensions of LGBTQ Bullying
Several religious and political issues must be acknowledged before attempting to move forward and implement any of the previously mentioned strategies to combat antigay bullying in schools and create a more welcoming and safe environment for LGBTQ students. This is especially true in communities where there is intolerance toward gays and lesbians.
Much antigay bullying in schools stems from the systemic problems of homophobia and heterosexism. In many schools and communities, heterosexuality is viewed as “…‘normal’ and ‘natural’ not only through gender socialization but through construction of sexual otherness as inferior” (Walton, 2004, p. 26). While many school administrators heartily embrace antibullying strategies, antibullying initiatives that avoid the larger systemic issues of homophobia and heterosexism enhance the safety of some students but leave some of the most vulnerable students “unsafe” where the “…threat of violence for gender and sexual orientation nonconformity is pervasive” (Walton, 2004, p. 29). The reach and devastating impact of homophobic bullying is pointedly described by Parsons (2005):
With homophobic bullying, you are either one of ‘us’ or one of ‘them’. Anyone defending a target labeled ‘gay’ is in danger of being labeled the same. In fact, gay and lesbian students will often resort to homophobic bullying to deflect suspicions about their own sexual orientation…[and] adults who are proactive in confronting homophobia are subject to whisper campaigns about their own sexual orientation. (p. 23)
Much opposition to LGBT equality also stems from moral conservatives and their deeply held fundamentalist religious beliefs. Central among these (p.47) beliefs is that the Bible is the literal word of God and that there are moral absolutes and premarital sex and homosexuality are condemned (Putnam & Campbell, 2010). As a result, strong objections have been raised by religious conservatives and fundamentalists regarding any antibullying strategy that includes LGBT students as victims. Leaders from religious right organizations such as the Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition, and Focus on the Family have actively opposed any efforts to combat antigay bullying in schools because they view these efforts as a way of legitimizing and promoting homosexuality as “normal and natural” (Macgillivray, 2004, p. 17). Focus on the Family contends that liberals and gay rights groups are using the anti-LGBTQ bullying banner to pursue a hidden agenda designed to sneak homosexuality into classrooms to indoctrinate and recruit students (Cushman, 2010; People for the American Way, n.d.). Focus on the Family education expert Candi Cushman argues that activists are using their antibullying rhetoric to convey that homosexuality is normal and should be accepted while opposing viewpoints by conservative Christians are portrayed as bigotry and belittled (Macgillivray, 2004). Morally conservative parents believe that parental rights and religious freedoms are in danger of being violated when “homosexual activism” is promoted in schools (Cushman, 2010). However, Eliza Byard, executive director of the national Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, says its agenda is to “ensure safe schools and acceptance for all students, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, race, national origin or ability” (Draper, 2010, para. 7). While conservative parents believe that there should be no tolerance of bullying, they believe that gay rights groups are using the gay rights issue to press a social agenda (Eckholm, 2011b).
Unfortunately, school personnel are often caught in the middle of this intense political and religious battle. Most teachers have expressed a strong commitment to safeguard LGBT students and to work to create school climates that are safe and supportive (Harris Interactive and GLSEN, 2005). However, teachers also do not want to violate the rights of morally conservative parents who do not want their children to view or treat homosexuality as a socially acceptable lifestyle (Macgillivray, 2004). School officials may also be hindered in their efforts to protect LGBT students out of fear of a substantial backlash from these conservative parents and religious right organizations. For example, school officials may resist allowing students to form gay–straight alliances, or they may subject GSAs to a different set of rules (Harris Interactive and GLSEN, 2005).
(p.48) Not surprisingly, a central battleground in this fight between morally conservative parents and school officials is centered upon proposals to include sexual orientation in schools’ nondiscrimination policies. Conservative parents and religious right organizations believe that the ultimate result will be the legitimization and promotion of homosexuality as an acceptable alternative to heterosexuality and will also result in LGBT students and staff having “special rights” (Macgillivray, 2004). However, it can also be argued that a school district’s attempt to remain neutral on the bullying of LGBT students “is inherently stigmatizing” because it inhibits teachers and other adults from “confronting destructive stereotypes” and responding aggressively to the bullying of LGBT students and results in “a toxic environment” for LGBT students (Eckholm, 2011, p. 3). (A broader discussion of religious bullying, which extends beyond the targeting of LGBT students, can be found in Chapter 5 of this volume.)
Addressing Religious and Political Issues Surrounding LGBTQ Bullying
Most importantly, the objections of religious conservatives and fundamentalists regarding the bullying of LGBTQ students should not be ignored or dismissed. It is important to be sensitive to and respectful of strongly held religious beliefs because, when this occurs, the groups holding these beliefs are more likely to be receptive to change (Cole, 2006). Instead, each of their arguments and concerns should be directly addressed and myths should be replaced by facts. One of the major objections of religious conservatives is that combating LGBT bullying in schools will result in students being recruited and brainwashed to “become gay.” However, there is considerable scientific evidence that an individual’s sexual orientation is not a choice (American Psychological Association, 2011). Opponents also argue that anti-LGBT bullying provides special rights to LGBT students. However, protecting LGBT students from bullying simply ensures that LGBT students receive similar protections against harassment as other groups of students (e.g., students with disabilities) (People for the American Way, n.d.). Focus on the Family contends that generic antibullying policies that don’t include LGBT bullying are most effective, but they offer no evidence to substantiate this claim. However, there is evidence that schools become safer for all students when schools adopt antibullying policies that enumerate the categories of students most frequently targeted by bullies, including race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, and gender identity or expression (Costello, 2010b).
(p.49) Since scientific evidence alone is not likely to influence or sway the opinions of individuals whose negative views about homosexuality are based on their religious beliefs, arguments should also be theological in nature (Bartkowski, 1996). Some religious leaders have offered compelling counterarguments to the biblical basis for antigay beliefs. (For example, see Daniel Helminiak’s book What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality.)
The bottom line is that groups of people with differing religious beliefs must learn to cope with each other in our democratic society as well as work together to protect all students from being harmed. Costello (2010b), writing on behalf of Teaching Tolerance, argues these points forcefully and effectively:
Focus on the Family’s biggest fear is that schools will reflect a diverse U.S. society—one that includes LGBT students. They do not want to be challenged in their belief that homosexuality is immoral, abnormal and changeable. We don’t expect to change those personal beliefs. Simply put, our goal is to ask those who would ignore the pain and suffering of these children to understand that acknowledging the problem of anti-gay bullying—and wanting to make schools safe for all students from harassment—doesn’t require that you approve…we would remind them that living in a democratic and diverse society means living alongside people with whom you disagree. The alternative is to stay silent and stand by while terrible things happen to other people’s children. Terrible things that no parent would ever want to happen to his or her own child. (p. 2)
Sexual bullying and sexual harassment are used in the literature to describe verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. The concept of sexual harassment is distinct from the concept of sexual bullying in several ways. Most significantly, sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination and is illegal under federal law Title IX, which was passed by the U.S. Congress in 1972 (Stein & Mennemeier, 2011). Sexual bullying, as codified in state laws, varies state by state and does not rise to the level of being a violation of federal law (Stein & Mennemeier, 2011).
While a number of researchers detail the important differences between sexual harassment and sexual bullying (see Sparks, 2011, and see Espelage, (p.50) Stein, Rose, & Elliot, 2009), I will use the terms sexual bullying and sexual harassment interchangeably throughout this chapter since I agree with the view that sexual harassment is “bullying with overt sexual overtones” (Stein & Mennemeier, 2011).
In the broadest sense, sexual bullying/harassment is any form of physical or nonphysical bullying using a person’s sexuality or gender as a weapon by boys or girls toward other boys or girls—although it is more commonly directed at girls (NSPCC, n.d.). It includes bullying people because of their sex life (e.g., because they haven’t had sex or because they’ve had sex with a number of people), or their body (e.g., the size of their breasts). It includes using words that refer to someone’s sexuality in a derogatory way (like calling something “gay” to mean that it is not very good), using sexual words to put someone down (like calling someone “slut” or “bitch”), making threats or jokes about serious and frightening subjects like rape, spreading rumors about someone’s sexuality and sex life, touching parts of someone’s body where he or she doesn’t want to be touched, and putting pressure on someone to act in a sexual way (NSPCC).
What Is the Nature and Extent of Sexual Bullying/Harassment in Schools?
A 2011 national study on sexual harassment in schools sponsored by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) provides up-to-date findings on the extent to which students in Grades 7–12 have experienced or witnessed sexual harassment in schools (Hill & Kearl, 2011). In this survey, sexual harassment was defined as unwelcome sexual behavior that takes place in person or electronically; if everyone involved likes and agrees to the sexual behavior, it is not sexual harassment. The authors of this study reported the following findings: Nearly half (48%) of the students surveyed experienced some form of sexual harassment with verbal harassment (unwelcome sexual comments, jokes, or gestures) making up the bulk of the incidents. Sexual harassment by text, e-mail, Facebook, or other electronic means affected 30% of students, and many of the students who were sexually harassed through cyberspace were also sexually harassed in person. Girls were more likely than boys to be sexually harassed (56% versus 40%). Girls and boys reported that they were called gay or lesbian in a negative way in equal numbers (18% of students). One third of girls (33%) and about one quarter (24%) of boys said that they observed sexual harassment at their school. Among students who were sexually harassed, about 9% reported the incident to a teacher, guidance counselor, or other (p.51) adult at school, and about one quarter (27%) of students said they talked about the incident with parents or family members (including siblings); about one quarter (23%) spoke with friends about the incident; and one half of students who were sexually harassed said they did nothing afterward in response to sexual harassment. Forty-four percent who admitted to sexually harassing others didn’t think of it as a big deal, and 39% said they were trying to be funny; only a handful of students who harassed others did so because they wanted a date with the person (3%) or thought the person liked it (6%). Ninety-two percent of girls and 80% of boys who admitted to sexually harassing another student were also the target of sexual harassment themselves (Hill & Kearl, 2011). Other researchers have reported that cyberbullying (discussed in detail in Chapter 3 of this volume) is emerging as the newest way to sexually harass peers, with 18% of students reporting that a harassing text message was sexual in nature (Ybarra, Espelage, & Martin, 2011), and that sexual harassment is more severe in high school than in middle school (Gruber & Fineran, 2008).
It is important to note that teachers and other adults may also bully and harass students in sexual ways. It is difficult to know the actual rate of teachers as abusers because the sexual abuse often goes unreported. However, an extensive investigation by the Associated Press found that 2,570 teaching credentials were revoked between 2001 and 2005 for allegations of sexual misconduct with a student (Irvine & Tanner, 2007). Most allegations of sexual abuse by teachers are often unfounded or declared false due to “insufficient evidence” and a victim’s morality comes into question (Irvine & Tanner, 2007). (A detailed discussion of additional ways that teachers bully students can be found of Chapter 5 of this volume.)
Impact of Sexual Bullying/Harassment on Victims
While both girls and boys can encounter sexual harassment at school, it appears that sexual harassment is a highly gendered phenomenon that is directly associated with negative outcomes for girls (Hill & Kearl, 2011). While the vast majority of victims (87%) said it had a negative effect on them, girls are more likely than boys to say that sexual harassment caused them to have trouble sleeping (22% of girls vs. 14% of boys), not want to go to school (37% of girls vs. 25% of boys), or change the way they went to school or back home from school (10% of girls vs. 6% of boys). Girls were more likely in every case to say they felt that way for “quite a while” compared with boys. Boys were most likely to report that being called gay was the type of sexual (p.52) harassment most troubling to them. Reactions varied, however, with some boys saying that they laughed it off, while others expressed embarrassment, sadness, or fear as a result of the experience (Hill & Kearl, 2011). It has also been reported that the effects of sexual harassment in high school are more damaging than the bullying behaviors students may have experienced in middle school (Gruber & Fineran, 2008).
Preventing Sexual Bullying/Harassment in Schools
Based on these findings, prevention efforts should focus on situations where humor crosses the line and becomes sexual harassment (Hill & Kearl, 2011). Students who participated in the 2011 AAUW study of sexual harassment in schools offered several ideas for reducing sexual harassment in their school, including: designating a person students can talk to; providing online resources; holding in-class discussions; and providing for the anonymous reporting of problems, enforcement of sexual harassment policies, and punishment of harassers. Based on findings from their national survey as well as other researchers in this field, Hill & Kearl (2011) also offer a number of concrete recommendations to combat sexual bullying and harassment in schools (see Box 4.2). In essence, by viewing sexual bullying as harassment, school districts can take specific actions based on the federal definition of sexual harassment and the rights of students under Title IX (Goodemann, Zammitt, & Hagedorn, in press).
Several programs show promise in reducing sexual bullying and harassment in schools. Expect Respect: A School-Based Program Promoting Safe and Healthy Relationships for Youth was developed in the late 1980s by SafePlace. According to information contained on their Web site, a major premise of the Expect Respect program is that bullying and sexual harassment behaviors condition students to accept mistreatment in their peer relationships, laying the foundation for abuse in future dating relationships. Without effective adult intervention, students learn to expect and accept mistreatment from and among their peers. Based upon available research on bullying, the most effective strategy involves preparing all members of the school community to respond consistently whenever a student is mistreated (Olweus, Limber, & Mihalic, 1999). The Expect Respect program consists of four components: (a) counseling and support groups, (b) classroom presentations, (c) the summer teen leadership program, and (d) training for school personnel. According to the publication, Expect Respect: A School-Based Program Promoting Safe & (p.53) Healthy Relationships for Youth by Barri Rosenbluth, published by the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence, intervention schools demonstrated a decrease in students’ self-reported incidences of bullying others, being bullied, and witnessing bullying; and students’ acceptance of negative dating and gender role attitudes as well as an increase in students’ (p.54) willingness to intervene on behalf of other students who were being bullied or harassed, students’ ability to identify sexual harassment, students’ awareness of school sexual harassment policy, and students’ willingness to tell parents and adults on campus about incidents of bullying and sexual harassment.
Shifting Boundaries: Lessons on Relationships for Students in Middle School was developed by Nan D. Stein, with Kelly Mennemeier, Natalie Russ, and Bruce Taylor, with contributions from the New York City Department of Education. Shifting Boundaries began in 2005 and features detailed instructions for teachers and handouts for six sessions for Grades 6 and 7. The lessons discuss setting boundaries, measuring personal space, determining appropriate and inappropriate behaviors at school, what sexual harassment is, how to respond, the consequences for harassers, and mapping safe and unsafe spaces at school. Each lesson includes discussion questions, group work, and personal reflection. In one activity, students map out “hot spots” in the school where they feel most unsafe. A 2010 study funded by the U.S. Department of Justice of 30 New York City middle schools found schools that implemented the program saw 26% to 34% fewer instances of sexual harassment after 6 months, 32% to 47% fewer instances of sexual violence, and 50% less physical and sexual dating violence than at the start of the program.
LGBT students face unrelenting bullying and harassment by their peers in many U.S. schools. Gay students report that school employees do little or nothing to stop antigay behavior when they witness it. LGBT students who are victims of chronic bullying do not feel safe at school, miss a lot of school, and get lower academic grades and lower GPAs. Suicide remains the third leading cause of death of LGBT youth.
Several concrete steps can be taken by school officials to minimize antigay bullying in schools: establish a gay–straight alliance; ensure that LGBTQ youth have knowledge of and access to at least one supportive adult in the school; develop and enforce an antibullying policy that explicitly includes sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression; and incorporate positive representations of LGBT people and the achievements of gays and lesbians throughout history in the school curriculum.
Much opposition to LGBT equality stems from moral conservatives and their deeply held fundamentalist religious beliefs. Unfortunately, school (p.55) personnel are often caught in the middle of this intense political and religious battle. For example, while most teachers want to protect LGBTQ students from being bullied, teachers also do not want to violate the rights of morally conservative parents.
Sexual bullying and sexual harassment is any form of physical or nonphysical bullying using a person’s sexuality or gender as a weapon by boys or girls toward other boys or girls—although it is more commonly directed at girls. Nearly half of the students in a national survey experienced some form of sexual harassment, with verbal harassment making up the bulk of the incidents. Teachers and other adults bully and harass students in sexual ways but it often goes unreported. Intervention efforts should focus on situations where humor crosses the line and becomes sexual harassment. By viewing sexual bullying as harassment, school districts can take specific actions based on the federal definition of sexual harassment and the rights of students under Title IX. Several programs show promise in reducing sexual bullying and harassment in schools, including Expect Respect: A School-Based Program Promoting Safe and Healthy Relationships for Youth and Shifting Boundaries: Lessons on Relationships for Students in Middle School.