Commentary: Going back to school is risky for some youths

Back-to-school time brings a contrast of thoughts to mind: on the upside, new clothes or uniforms, new school supplies and a fresh start with friends. On the downside, the end of summer vacation, a return of schoolwork and the daily routine of getting up early for school. But for some students, back to school means facing another school year, or classroom, or peer group where they feel unsafe.

The numbers back up that claim. A new nationwide report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found consistent and dramatic violence, alcohol and substance use and sexual risk behavior among lesbian, gay and bisexual students compared with heterosexual students.

In fact, LGB students are nearly two times as likely to be bullied on school property; twice as likely to be threatened or injured with a weapon on school property; and nearly three times as likely to miss school because they feel unsafe. Nationally, 12.5 percent of LGB students reported that they missed school because they feel unsafe. In Houston and Fort Worth, the only two Texas cities included in the study, rates were even higher at 17.7 percent and 16.4 percent respectively.

Think of it: School-aged youths are required by law to attend school. They have no choice. And yet for some students, going to school is risky.

These are the same students who may not tell parents, teachers or other adults that they do not feel safe. There has been story after story during the past five years about youths who were bullied at school for being LGB, and whose parents only found out after violence or suicide.

Not surprisingly, these experiences of violence are strongly linked to dramatic behavior and mental health risks: Not only are tobacco, alcohol and drug use higher, but LGB youths are three times as likely as heterosexual students to seriously consider attempting suicide, and more than three times as likely to have been treated by a doctor or nurse for a suicide attempt.

This has to stop.

The report represents a major advance in understanding the health of LGB youths in the United States. Until 2014, questions about sexual identity were not standard on national and state Youth Risk Behavior Survey questionnaires. This new information is important because it documents at a national level what we have known anecdotally for a long time: that LGB youths are more likely to experience violence, often in schools, which undermines their behavioral and mental health.

The report also points to the unique role of schools to address the health of LGB students. A 2010 report from the Society for Research in Child Development on “Safe Schools Policy for LGBTQ Students” identified key policies and programs that promote safety and health, including:

• Nondiscrimination and anti-bullying policies that include actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity or expression.

• Teacher intervention when bullying happens, especially discriminatory bullying.

• Presence of support groups or clubs such as “gay-straight alliances.”

• Inclusion of LGBTQ people or issues in school curricula, and access to information and resources in school libraries, health centers and from teachers and other school personnel.

These strategies promote school safety and achievement not only for LGB students, but for heterosexual students as well. Yet there are no national laws or guidelines, so policies and programs vary state by state, district by district and school by school. In Texas, state law prohibits bullying and harassment in schools, but not all districts clearly define groups that are protected under their policies.

Perhaps the most crucial point in the report is this: “The majority of sexual minority students cope … and become healthy and productive adults.”

This point cannot be understated. Although LGB youths are at dramatically higher risk, many are just fine and don’t experience these risks. They are resilient. They do just fine despite their experiences of violence.

But students shouldn’t have to face a hostile school climate in the first place. What Texas needs are school policies and programs to reduce discrimination and violence so that all youths can thrive.

Russell is the Priscilla Pond Flawn Regents Professor in Child Development at the University of Texas. His new book from Oxford Press, “Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity, and Schooling: The Nexus of Research, Practice, and Policy,” was released Aug. 18.

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