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More than a Bully Pulpit

Congress Must Pass Law to Prevent Teenage Bullying in School

SOURCE: AP/Robert F. Bukaty

Members of the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network march in the Southern Maine Pride parade.

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A new study from the Family Acceptance Project published in the Journal of School Health—the journal of the American School Health Association—details the high rates of bullying that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender students experience in middle school and high school alongside bullying’s long-term effects extending well into young adulthood. This study, the first of its kind, shows that the impact of bullying doesn’t simply stop when gay and transgender youth graduate and enter adulthood, leaving behind the hostility they faced as teenagers.

The new report provides timely data about the problem after last year’s spike in media coverage of school bullying prompted discussion and debate across the country about the safety of our nation’s schools and students. Much of that focus was on students who are especially vulnerable to being bullied, including youth who are known or are perceived to be gay or transgender. Organizations like the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network and the Trevor Project are doing great work advocating for new policies to help make sure all students are safe while in school, and have access to age-appropriate support services that literally save lives every day.

But as encouraging as this work is by advocacy organizations, service providers, and the media focusing on the experiences and needs of today’s students, little attention has been given to the long-term consequences of school bullying on students as they transition into young adulthood. Understanding this impact, however, is important if we are to grasp the full picture of the school bullying problem and its social and public health costs, and ultimately secure a permanent policy solution.

The Journal of School Health study, authored by Dr. Stephen Russell, Dr. Caitlin Ryan, and the team from the Family Acceptance Project, shows just how damaging school bullying is to gay and transgender students not just while they are in school but also as they age into their 20s. The researchers surveyed about 250 gay and transgender young adults ages 21 to 25, asking them whether they faced bullying or other forms of victimization at school when they were between the ages of 13 and 19. They also asked questions about their overall mental health in recent months, including questions about depression, suicidal thoughts or behavior, substance abuse and use, and risky sexual practices.

Their findings are striking. Compared to gay and transgender young adults reporting low levels of school victimization during adolescence, gay and transgender young adults who report high rates of LGBT-related victimization are 2.6 times more likely to report symptoms of clinical depression, and 5.6 times more likely to report having attempted suicide at least once (and having a suicide attempt that required medical attention). Further, people in the group reporting high rates of victimization were 2.5 times more likely to report having had a diagnosis of a sexually transmitted disease and nearly four times as likely to report risk for HIV infection.

Past research from GLSEN’s 2009 National School Climate Survey tell us that 9 out of 10 gay and transgender middle school and high school students experience harassment in a typical school year. And 61 percent of these students feel unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation, and 39 percent because of their gender identity or expression. Using GLSEN’s estimates, and assuming that 10 percent of the nation’s 30 million middle school and high school students are (or are perceived to be) gay or transgender, then we have millions of youth who are victimized in the school system each year.

The Family Acceptance Project’s study suggests that these millions of youth, as they age into their 20s, continue to live with the fallout of the victimization that they experienced in school. These negative outcomes do not just harm the individuals who experience them. Instead, like other public health problems, they have public costs associated with them, including lost productivity at work, increased private or public health insurance costs, and an increase in demand for related social and health services. Of course, the loss of a life due to suicide is impossible to calculate in terms of dollars and cents.

But the new study offers some hope. The data show that even small to moderate improvements in the climate for gay and transgender youth in middle school and high school can have a significant and positive impact on students’ long-term health and well-being. The clearest and most comprehensive way to improve these climates is to require all schools to have antibullying and harassment policies that include a specific focus on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth. As CAP explained in a report earlier this year, no federal law exists to protect these students in school. Instead, a confusing patchwork of state-level laws and regulations are currently in place. These policies are a good start to offering protections to gay and transgender youth, but given that such bullying and harassment in our schools is a national problem, a federal response is critically needed.

Currently, two bills before Congress would greatly help improve school climates by targeting the prevention of bullying. The first is the Student Non-Discrimination Act, which Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) introduced in March of this year. This bill would prohibit public schools from discriminating against students based on their sexual orientation and gender identity, and require schools to respond to harassing behavior. The bill currently has 130 sponsors in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The second bill is the Safe Schools Improvement Act, which Sen. Robert Casey (D-PA) introduced also in early March 2011. This bill would amend the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to require schools receiving federal funds to adopt policies that specifically prohibit bullying and harassment based on a range of student characteristics, including sexual orientation and gender identity. It would also require states to regularly report data on bullying and harassment to the U.S. Department of Education. Twenty-two senators have signed on as co-sponsors of the bill.

Passage of these two bills into law would do much to improve school climates for gay and transgender students. The new research published in the Journal of School Health suggests that these new laws would not only improve the lives and experiences of youth while in school, but also for young people after they leave school and age into young adulthood.

Indeed, the costs of school bullying are not simply limited to the bad outcomes, such as low attendance and grades, high dropout rates, and poor mental health, which students experience while they’re in middle school and high school. Instead, the impact is much greater and lasts for years. Enabling and enforcing safe schools for gay and transgender youth via nondiscrimination laws makes sense not only for students today, but for all of us for years to come.

Jeff Krehely is Director of LGBT Research and Communications at the Center for American Progress.

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