The number of K–12 students who are now identifying as LGBTQ is growing significantly. Despite efforts to increase the awareness of the needs of this student population, many LGBTQ students feel that they are still invisible and underserved within their school communities. According to a 2017 report from GLSEN, in addition to feeling isolated and neglected, a large percentage of LGBTQ students report verbal and physical harassment while their academic performance and feelings of self-worth are negatively affected.
Adding to the dilemmas facing LGBTQ students, many educational professionals have not been prepared with adequate professional development or training in their undergraduate and/or graduate programs to help meet the specific needs of this population. School counselors have a professional and ethical obligation to address the needs of underserved and at-risk students as individuals, to advocate for them collectively and to engage systemic change in schools to facilitate healthy academic and emotional development for LGBTQ students
School counselors have the unique opportunity to advocate and improve conditions for LGBTQ students in our nation’s schools. Important components are collaborating, designing and implementing an effective responsive services program for LGBTQ students that includes curriculum planning, counseling and support systems for students, and professional development activities for all educational professionals and support staff.
Studies have demonstrated that the following interventions should be included in a school counseling program to help acknowledge and address challenges facing the LGBTQ population.
Develop and Implement LGBTQ Curricula
An important component in meeting the needs of LGBTQ students is curricula that can be taught collaboratively by teachers, counselors and administrators. Many studies show that inclusion of LGBTQ issues in the school curriculum improves LGBTQ students' attendance, physical and mental health, and safety and performance in school, while creating an environment in which students feel more comfortable and safe. LGBTQ-inclusive classroom resources are available to school counselors at no charge on the GLSEN website (www.glsen.org). In addition to providing school counselors with effective lessons that can easily include ASCA Mindsets & Behaviors and common core standards, school counselors can use the educator to develop effective professional development trainings for faculty, staff and parents.
Safe Spaces and GSA Organizations
Studies have provided robust evidence supporting interventions such as the formation of GSA organizations and safe spaces. Research in different states and locales, utilizing a variety of methodologies, has consistently found that school-based responsive and collaborative interventions are successful at improving school environments – including reduced, threats, violence and dating violence and increased sense of safety among LGBTQ youths – and improving health and educational outcomes, such as reducing truancy, injuries at school and suicide attempts.
Despite the success of GSAs in many schools across the United States, not all students, schools, and communities welcome GSAs, and the existence of these organizations varies greatly by district and region. Consequently, it is incumbent upon school counselors to create an awareness of the effectiveness of school-based support programs that are designed to address the needs of LGBTQ students.
Develop and Implement Specific Anti-Bullying Policies that Protect LGBTQ Students
To illustrate the importance of systemic change regarding the issues facing the LGBTQ student population, numerous studies have clearly demonstrated the benefit of affirming and protective school environments for LGBTQ youth mental health. Students living in states with enumerated anti-bullying laws that include sexual orientation and gender identity report less homophobic victimization and harassment than do students who attend schools in states without these protections. School counselors can provide valuable assistance to administrators and policymakers regarding the development and implementation of specific anti-bullying policies that address the needs of LGBTQ students.
Professional Development for School Counselors, Faculty, Staff and Administrators
Professional development for administrators, faculty and staff is a crucial component of transforming schools to become supportive environments for LGBTQ students. LGBTQ-specific training for teachers, staff and administrators fosters understanding and empathy for LGBTQ students and is associated with more frequent adult intervention in bias-based bullying. School personnel are often hesitant to address any LGBTQ topics that may arise in classroom discussions and lack adequate professional development to feel confident in their ability to broach such topics. School counselors are in a unique position to take the lead on providing the entire school community with training and resources designed to help meet the academic and social/emotional needs of LGBTQ students.
School counselors cannot ignore the fact that the needs of the LGBTQ population are not being met in many schools. Although systemic change and school transformation are never easy to navigate, the time for change is long overdue. There is no blanket solution or one-size-fits-all approach; rather, each school community must assess its needs by seeking input from students, parents, teachers, school counselors, policymakers, administrators and community partners. By giving the LGBTQ community and its advocates a voice, programs can be designed and implemented that will directly address the primary needs of this underserved and at-risk community, and provide all students with a safe and secure environment.
Kevin L. Ensor, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of counselor education at New Mexico Highlands University. Contact him at email@example.com.