WASHINGTON, DC ( June 7, 2018 ) —Yesterday, the Federal Commission on School Safety held a Listening Session with educational experts and gun violence activist. The following testimony was given by Dr. Eliza Byard, GLSEN Executive Director during the session:
We applaud the efforts of the Federal Commission on School Safety in creating and continuing a national dialogue about how the federal government can better ensure that all students have access to safe schools. By working to gather testimony by experts and invested stakeholders, we hope that the Commission has the opportunity to explore serious and innovative solutions that work to meet the needs of schools and students across the country. As this body continues to explore policy recommendations, GLSEN submits the following public comment to underscore how school safety and school climate impact LGBTQ youth, offering our expertise and insight into what solutions have been proven effective and ineffective in creating safe and affirming schools for all students.
Among the areas that the Commission is charged with studying and making recommendations are strategies to advance a culture of connectedness and consideration of the Obama Administration's "Rethinking School Discipline" policies. Establishing a culture of connectedness is critical to ensuring that students are physically and emotionally safe. At GLSEN, we believe that every student, in every school, should be valued and treated with respect, regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression. We believe that all students deserve a safe and affirming school environment where they can learn and grow. That's what guides us to work with K-12 schools across the country to conduct extensive and original research to inform evidence-based solutions for K-12 education, to create resources for educators working to create inclusive schools, to empower student voices, and to work with decision makers to ensure that comprehensive policies are implemented to benefit all students. As the largest national LGBTQ organization focused on education policy, we are invested in creating solutions at the local, state, and federal level to improve school climate.
The issue of school safety and connectedness is of particular concern to LGBTQ students because, as demonstrated by national data collection by both GLSEN and the Centers for Disease Control, LGBTQ students disproportionately report being subject to unsafe school climates. GLSEN data shows that 89.4% of LGBTQ students reported personally experiencing some type of peer victimization in 2015, as compared to 71.4% percent of their peers.[i]This victimization can reflect either bullying, assault, consequences of biased policies, or other incidents that have serious implications on the safety and success of LGBTQ youth. Indeed, research has shown that 57.6% of LGBTQ students felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation and 43.4% felt unsafe because of their gender identity.[ii]Student victimization and unsafe school climates have real consequences on both the well-being and achievement of surveyed youth. Students who experienced victimization at school were almost three times more likely to have skipped school because they felt unsafe or uncomfortable; to have demonstrated lower levels of academic achievement including lower GPAs; and to have had a lower self-esteem and higher levels of depression when compared to students who did not experience victimization related to their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.[iii]Similarly, the CDC reports that 60.4% of gay, lesbian, and bisexual students nationwide felt so sad or helpless in schools that they stopped participating in usual activitiesranging from abandoning extracurricular activities to falling behind in their classes.[iv]
The issue of school discipline and its disproportionate impact on certain students is also of particular concern to LGBTQ students because they are at a disproportionately higher risk for experiencing harsh school discipline and being pushed out of our schools than non-LGBTQ peers. Almost two thirds ( 62.8% ) of LGBTQ students had experienced some form of discipline, whether that was detention, in-school or out-of-school suspension, or expulsion, compared to less than half ( 45.8% ) of non-LGBTQ students.[v]LGBTQ students of color are more significantly impacted by these practices, with 46.7% of Black/African American LGBTQ students, 44.1% of Hispanic/Latino LGBTQ students, and 47.3% of multiracial LGBTQ students facing discipline in 2013, compared to 36.3% of white LGBTQ students surveyed. Similarly, 47.8% of disabled LGBTQ students reported experiencing school discipline compared to 36.9% of students who did not report a disability.[vi]This phenomenon is a consequence of punitive responses to LGBTQ student experiences of harassment and assault, discriminatory school policies and practices, and a lack of access to supportive resources to help students mitigate identity-based conflict in substantive ways. This leads to students being more likely to come into contact with the juvenile justice system and more likely to miss days of school.
In GLSEN's decades of work on promoting safe and inclusive schools, we know what works to prevent these harmful outcomesrelated to both victimization and harmful school discipline. Effective strategies to increase safety and respect for all students and staff include:
Increasing mental health resources in schools.All students need to feel seen and heard; providing adequate funding and professional development for quality competent mental health care and counseling within schools has the potential to decrease victimization and create a safer school climate.
Providing professional development for education professionals on cultural competency and systems of positive behavioral interventions and supports. By giving educators the tools that they need to communicate effectively with all students and to understand how best to support every child in their school through multi-tiered systems of supports, we can build more positive relationships within our communities. Teachers and administrators should have access to training and resources on creating an affirming classroom for students with different racial and ethnic backgrounds, sexual orientations, gender identities, abilities, religions, and other important identity groups.
Creating intentional anti-bullying and harassment intervention policies.At GLSEN we advocate for LGBTQ enumerated and affirming policies, from anti-harassment and bullying code to policies specifically designed to protect of transgender students. The strength of an enumerated law or policy is that it supports those students who research shows are most likely to be bullied and harassed and least likely to be protected under non-enumerated anti-bullying laws and policies. While enumerated policies specifically highlight the most vulnerable students, they do not limit the policy to only those students, but rather serve to protect all students.
Ensuring that restorative justice practices are utilized in the classroom.It is crucial that anti-bullying policies and other discipline practices are intentionally written with restorative justice practices in mind. Zero-tolerance policies do not get at the heart of harmful climates that lead to victimization, but rather perpetuate the school-to-prison pipeline and its disproportionate outcomes removing marginalized students from the classroom and placing them in the juvenile justice setting. When creating discipline practices, schools should employ graduated approaches that consider the seriousness of the offense in order to keep students in school whenever possible and reintegrate them into the regular classroom should they be briefly removed. To this end, the Department of Education should maintain the "Rethinking School Discipline" policies, which serve as valuable guidance to school districts and schools.
We also know what interventions in the name of "school safety" will not work, and indeed would cause schools to be less safe. We urge the Department of Education to avoid such policy initiatives that would have harmful consequences for LGBTQ and otherwise marginalized students. Enacting zero-tolerance policies for bullying or other offenses would not make our schools safer, but instead would effectively punish more heavily students who need additional resources. Advancing discipline practices without accounting for how they impact LGBTQ students, disabled students, students of color, or otherwise marginalized youth would not make any students safer. Further, introducing weapons in schools will not make school safer. In order to establish safe and engaging learning environments, teachers need to focus on educating students and cultivating relationships with them, not worrying about gun security and safe weapons management. We strongly oppose any policy that would allow or encourage firearms in a classroom where students, educators, or administrators could experience harm.
In summation, to aid in establishing safe and inclusive schools, we recommend that the Commission pursue advancing policies and guidance that foster a positive and affirmative school climate for all students, especially for those, like LGBTQ students, who are most at risk for victimization, exclusion, and harassment. These specific recommendations include policies that prioritize professional development around mental health and cultural competence, allocating resources to ensure educators have access to training on conflict intervention, policies designed to mitigate the impacts of harassment and bullying on marginalized students, and creating intentional school discipline policies that are focused on altering questionable behavior instead of punishment. We also strongly urge the Department of Education to maintain the "Rethinking School Discipline" policies in order to combat the impacts of harsh and exclusionary school discipline practices on LGBTQ students, students with disabilities, students of color, and students with identities that span more than one of these identity groups. Should any questions remain about our recommendations or should this body have interest in learning more, please get in contact with our office at firstname.lastname@example.org .
[i]Greytak, E.A., Kosciw, J.G., Villenas, C. & Giga, N.M. ( 2016 ). From Teasing to Torment: School Climate Revisited, A Survey of U.S. Secondary School Students and Teachers. New York: GLSEN
[ii]Kosciw, J. G., Greytak, E. A., Giga, N. M., Villenas, C. & Danischewski, D. J. ( 2016 ). The 2015 National School Climate Survey: The experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer youth in our nation's schools. New York: GLSEN.
[iii]Kosciw, J.G., et. al. ( 2016 ). The 2015 National School Climate Survey. GLSEN.
[iv]Frieden, T.R., Jaffe, H.W., Cono, J., et. al ( 2016 ). Sexual Identity, Sex of Sexual Contacts, and Health-Related Behaviors Among Students in Grades 9—12 United States and Selected Sites, 2015. Washington: CDC.
[v]Greytak, et. al. ( 2016 ). From Teasing to Torment: School Climate Revisited. GLSEN.
[vi]GLSEN ( 2016 ). Educational exclusion: Drop out, push out, and school-to-prison pipeline among LGBTQ youth. New York: GLSEN.
GLSEN works to create safe and inclusive schools for all. We envision a world in which every child learns to respect and accept all people, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, and/or expression. Each year, GLSEN programs and resources reach millions of students and educators in K-12 schools across the United States, and our network of 39 community-led chapters in 26 states brings GLSEN's expertise to local communities. GLSEN's progress and impact have won support for inclusive schools at all levels of education in the United States and sparked an international movement to ensure equality for LGBTQ students and respect for all in schools. For more information on GLSEN's policy advocacy, student leadership initiatives, public education, research, and educator training programs, please visit www.glsen.org .