General Articles

2009 National School Climate Survey Reveals LGBT Youth Still Face Significant Harassment

The 2009 National School Climate Survey (NSCS), produced biennially by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), provides sobering insight into the harassment that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students regularly face at school as well as the detrimental effects that such persecution has on their educational outcomes. Since GLSEN conducted the first NSCS in 1999, the number of LGBT students who reported hearing homophobic slurs has decreased; however, since 2005, “students’ reports of hearing these types of remarks have not decreased significantly.”[1] Another indicator that has remained relatively constant is the number of LGBT students who were subjected to more severe forms of bullying and harassment. All told, the NSCS shows that nine out of 10 LGBT students experience harassment; however, the NSCS also reveals some positive developments that have occurred since GLSEN began conducting the survey a decade ago. Several factors that help create a positive educational environment for LGBT youth showed significant improvement, such as the presence of Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) in schools, supportive educators that LGBT students can confide in and depend on for help if harassed or bullied, and curricula that are “inclusive of diverse groups [and promote] respect and equity for all.”[2]
Several factors contribute to the hostile school climate LGBT students may face: experiencing homophobic slurs and negative remarks based on gender expression; verbal and physical harassment; physical assault; and attacks via text messages, emails, and postings on social networking websites, a phenomenon commonly referred to as “cyberbullying.” The NSCS found that nearly 90% of students “heard ‘gay’ used in a negative way (e.g., ‘that’s so gay’) frequently or often at school,” and almost all of those students reported feeling upset as a result of hearing such language.[3] Significant portions of LGBT students also reported hearing homophobic epithets (72.4%), being subjected to pejorative comments if they did not restrict themselves to perceived standards of gender expression, such as wardrobe (62.6%), and being ridiculed or threatened as a result of their sexual orientation (84.6%). In addition, nearly one-fifth of students “were physically assaulted (e.g., punched, kicked, injured with a weapon) because of their sexual orientation,” and twice that number reported less severe forms of physical harassment.[4]
Actual or anticipated inaction on the part of school officials to intervene on the behalf of LGBT students serves to exacerbate the problem of bullying. A majority of students surveyed declined to report any sort of attack to school personnel because they did not believe that any action would be taken against their tormentors, and “33.8% of students who did report an incident said that school staff did nothing in response.”[5] A small percentage of the students surveyed reported that they did not ask staff to intervene because of a perception that the staff members were homophobic, and some students reported that they actually were harassed by staff members as a result of their sexual orientation or gender expression.  
The intimidation that many LGBT students face at school negatively affects their attendance, academic performance, educational ambitions, and psychological health. According to the NSCS, LGBT students were three times more likely to have missed at least one class and four times more likely to have “missed at least one day of school . . . in the [previous] month because they felt unsafe or uncomfortable” compared to their non-LGBT peers.[6] In addition, LGBT students who experienced frequent harassment suffered academically, earning grade point averages four-tenths of a point below students who were not harassed. They were also less likely to pursue postsecondary education, such as college or vocational training, than were other high school students. Finally, victimization was shown to negatively impact self-esteem and cause elevated levels of depression and anxiety.
While the NSCS provides stark insight into the bigotry that LGBT students experience regularly, it also identifies a number of factors that improve their academic environment. LGBT students in schools with a GSA—a “student-run club . . . which provides a safe place for students to meet, support each other, talk about issues related to sexual orientation, and work to end homophobia reported hearing fewer homophobic slurs”— felt safer, and were harassed less than their peers in schools without one. However, less than half of the students reported attending a school with a GSA.[7] The presence of educators and other staff that LGBT students felt were supportive also proved important. Although almost all of the LGBT students surveyed reported knowing at least one staff member they considered to be supportive of their sexual orientation or gender identity, the students who attended schools with at least six supportive educators felt safer in school, achieved better grades, and were more likely to pursue postsecondary education than were their peers in schools with fewer empathetic staff members, and only 53.4% of students reported that this was the case.
In addition, curricula are increasingly including “positive representations of LGBT people, history, and events,” and this “may promote a general tone of acceptance of LGBT people and increased awareness of LGBT-related issues.”[8] Finally, the survey explicitly highlights the importance of comprehensive anti-bullying and anti-harassment policies that “explicitly state protection based on personal characteristics, such as sexual orientation and gender identity/expression,” at all levels, to combat bullying. In schools with a comprehensive anti-bullying policy, fewer LGBT students reported being harassed compared to their peers in schools with policies that do not include sexual orientation or gender identity; however, only 18.2% of students attended a school with such a policy.[9]
“SIECUS congratulates our colleagues at GLSEN on the release of the 2009 National School Climate Survey, which shows clearly the unacceptable bigotry that LGBT students face daily in school,” comments Jen Heitel Yakush, director of public policy at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. “Particularly in light of the recent suicides of several youth who were known to be bullied for their real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity, we strongly urge states and school districts without comprehensive anti-bullying policies to adopt policies that specifically protect students who are targeted because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. LGBT students, like all students, deserve safe, healthy learning environments where a culture of bullying is unacceptable and students are expected to participate in a culture of acceptance and tolerance.”

[1] Joseph G. Kosciw et al., The 2009 National School Climate Survey: The Experiences of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Youth in Our Nation’s Schools (New York, NY: Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, 2010), accessed 14 September 2010, <>, xix.

[2]Ibid., 66.

[3] Ibid., xvi.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., xvii.

[7] “What is a Gay-Straight Alliance?” GSA Network, accessed 26 September 2010, <>.

[8] Kosciw et al., The 2009 National School Climate Survey, 66.

[9] Ibid., 61.