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Counselors and Courts: Bully Prevention for Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Youth
Carolyn Stone, Ed.D.
Monday November 01, 2004
by: Carolyn Stone, Ed.D.

Section: Inside Insight

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School climates are often hostile for students but never more so than for gay, lesbian and transgender youth. Legal rulings are opening a window for change in how all students will be supported against bullies, which is especially good news for this most invisible, and yet most vulnerable, at-risk minority group. On May 24, 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court in Davis vs. Monroe County Board of Education imposed a ruling that, when coupled with recent interpretations of legislation and court cases, will have far-reaching and positive implications for gay, lesbian and bisexual students in schools. The Davis case established that public schools can be forced to pay damages for failing to stop student-on-student sexual harassment.

School counselors have long understood that a fair and inclusive education is not possible for a student whose physical and emotional safety is regularly compromised. Now the Davis ruling and other court cases strengthen school counselors’ efforts to create a more humanistic school environment. With the court’s backing, socially active counselors are stepping up and saying to school officials that the schools have to do more to eliminate bullying and harassment incidents with the potential to have a negative impact negatively upon students.

The imperative to act comes from the fact that for this at-risk group, school is not just uninviting, it is often dangerous. Students hear anti-gay remarks countless times per day. In 1995, the Massachusetts Department of Education surveyed about 4,000 high school students and found that 22 percent of the gay respondents said they had skipped school in the past month because they felt unsafe there. The drop-out rate for gay students is estimated at three times the national average. Gay, lesbian and bisexual students are at greater risk than their peers for suicide and for physical and emotional abuse in schools. Suicide attempts by gay, lesbian and bisexual students range from 20 percent to 40 percent. Legal rulings aside, the suicide rate alone is warrant enough for advocacy against the bullying these students endure.

Another important case occurred in Arkansas involving bullying of a gay student, Willi Wagner. Wagner was bullied for two years, and his mother continually complained to school officials. When Wagner was severely beaten by fellow classmates, his mother turned to the U.S. Department of Education for help and asked that her son’s abuse be treated as sexual harassment under Title IX. In 1998, Title IX was invoked, and the suit settled when the Fayetteville School District signed an agreement with the U.S. Department of Education to hold anti-harassment workshops for teachers and students. This case was significant in that it was the first time a suit under Title IX had been successfully resolved that involved harassment of a gay student.

The findings in the Wagner and Davis cases are but two examples in what is becoming a long list of legal rulings to support bullied students with monetary damages if the court determines school officials were deliberately indifferent to their suffering. These cases and others have brought an awareness among school personnel that it is important to create change in school cultures to reduce bullying for all students, including the most at-risk group.

School counselors are inundated with responsibilities, and it is hard to meet all the needs. However, efforts to establish a safe, respectful school climate, one of the goals of No Child Left Behind, is a worthy endeavor. Not only are school counselors instrumental in helping to heighten the awareness of the bullying problem in schools but they also serve as a source of strength for the individual student who needs help confronting and dealing with sexual harassment.

Create A Safe Environment
Following are recommendations on how to help create a safer school environment for gay, lesbian and transgender youth. These recommendations was adapted from “School Counselors as Advocates for Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Students: A Call for Action From the U.S. Supreme Court,” in the Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development.
 • Recognize the role of heterosexual “allies” in helping to make a schoolwide change in climate.
 • Seek the opinion of your fellow educators, and gather a group of stakeholders to help you.
 • Send summaries of the court cases on bullying to school officials in a position to understand the implications of avoiding similar lawsuits. For help, e-mail the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund at lambda@lambdalegal.org.
 • Promote the implementation of a bully-proofing policy to include applicable laws.
 • Contact Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) as a resource for information about other local resources and support groups to assist students and their parents.
 • Encourage school officials to allow written information on bulletin boards and in brochures detailing support groups and community activities for all minority groups, including questioning and gay, lesbian or bisexual students.
 • Include in diversity awareness and multicultural initiatives information about questioning and gay, lesbian, or bisexual students.
 • Use inclusive language whenever possible, such as during classroom guidance lessons or staff development. Challenge anti-gay verbal or written remarks.
 • Display the pink triangle “safe place” stickers supplied by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (www.glsen.org) or other support symbols to send a message to heterosexual and gay, lesbian or bisexual students that you’re an ally and your office is a safe place.
 • Continue to enhance collaboration between families and school. Involving parents routinely helps facilitate communication in tougher times.
 • Support community action to reduce hate crimes and heighten understanding among all citizens.
 • Search for ways to introduce students to positive gay, lesbian and bisexual role models. For example, include an activist for civil rights in career week activities – an activist who campaigns for gay rights. Present an assembly on diversity and tolerance and include a speaker such as Corey Johnson, the co-captain of his high school football team who came out in his junior year.

Following these tips and using their other bully-prevention skills can help school counselors make their schools a safe place for all students, including gay, lesbian, transgender and questioning youth.

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