Wednesday, November 19, 2014

It’s okay to be a LGBT student in rural America – or is it?

The lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community has made great strides in the last decade. Although some aspects may be improving, such as marriage equality, young people who identify as LGBT are still suffering in a big way: bullying and harassment in school. According to a study from the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), rural and small town schools pose the greatest threat for LGBT students.

GLSEN’s study documented the experiences of more than 2,300 LGBT students, ages 13-20, who attend schools in rural areas. This in-depth examination uncovered many significant challenges for these students. For example, 81% of students in rural schools reported feeling unsafe in school because of their sexual orientation or gender expression; students in the South and Midwest felt the most unsafe. Eighty-seven percent of students reported being verbally harassed, 45% reported being physically harassed, and 22% reported being physically assaulted at school in the past year because of their sexual orientation. Most rural youth reported that such incidents were not effectively addressed by school staff; only 13% of rural LGBT students said that school personnel intervened when they heard homophobic remarks, while 11% said school personnel intervened when they heard negative remarks related to gender expression.

Many LGBT students cope with bullying and harassment by taking steps that ultimately affect their academic performance. For example, 53% of LGBT students who experienced a high level of verbal harassment reported skipping classes or missing school to avoid hostile school environments. Those students who experienced high levels of harassment and assault had significantly lower grade point averages (2.9 versus 3.2) and lower college aspirations.

Faculty and students can do several things to counter bullying and harassment in rural schools. For example, school administration can implement comprehensive anti-bullying policies. Although forty-nine states already have anti-bullying laws, attaining funding for bullying prevention programs is often troublesome for schools, so schools fail to implement required policies and programs. Additionally, many state laws have lax standards and/or do not have a clear definition of which types of behavior and what situations constitute bullying. To truly help LGBT students in rural areas, faculty and administration need to hold themselves accountable to state laws, and possibly even create more extensive policies within their own schools. Schools can also create curriculum that includes lessons about LGBT people and issues (such as California, which requires public schools to teach students about the contributions of lesbian,gay, bisexual and transgender Americans), and support student clubs, such as Gay-Straight Alliances. Students in rural schools have reported that these kinds of resources provide higher levels of feeling belonging and lower levels of victimization.

Reducing bullying and harassment may be a challenging task, especially in rural schools that may have fewer resources. Luckily, organizations exist that are dedicated to helping LGBT students. For example, Outright Vermont is an organization that has worked with LGBT youth since 1989. Although they generally work in both urban and rural areas of Vermont, they have recently teamed up with the Department of Justice on a special three-year project that is designed to reduce bullying in Vermont’s rural communities, such as Bennington, Caledonia, Essex, Lamoille, Orange, Orleans, Windham, and Windsor counties. Outright Vermont helps LGBT students in rural areas by training faculty and staff on LGBT issues, expanding the network of Gay-Straight Alliances and support groups, and providing anti-bullying training and resources. In addition to organizations like Outright Vermont, there are also online resources such as GLSEN. In short, even schools in rural communities who may have more limited resources than their urban counterparts can reach out to various organizations to help LGBT students.

Although the LGBT experience seems to slowly be getting better in rural areas due to national campaigns and new regulations (see posts here and here), bullying and harassment is still a problem. LGBT students in rural communities tend to suffer more than students in suburban and urban areas, and these problems must be addressed. By tackling these issues, faulty and school administrators can help remove barriers to academic success and emotional well-being for LGBT students.

No comments: