Could Checking This Box on School Surveys Benefit LGBT Students?

Indiana University’s Equity Project wants school-age children to have the option of listing their gender identity and sexual orientation.
(Photo: Rob Lewine/Getty Images)
Mar 31, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Alex Janin is an editorial intern at TakePart and a senior at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

Researchers want school surveys to ask kids for their gender identity and sexual orientation so they can collect data on bullying and discrimination.

Indiana University’s Equity Project released a report Monday that shows there’s a lack of data that makes it hard to measure when LGBT students are targeted for harassment or disciplined more harshly in the classroom. By asking “What is your gender identity and sexual orientation?” on survey forms, schools are taking the first step to figuring out better interventions, said report coauthor and professor Russell Skiba.

“We do not have any clear path to get the data to identify over-discipline or bullying and harassment, and without that we don’t know how to target efforts to reduce it,” Skiba told TakePart.

The authors didn’t specify an age group but said some researchers suggest the question should apply to students age 10 and up.

The report offers several suggestions for how federal surveys can gather and measure this data. The School Crime Supplement, a survey directed at 12- to 18-year-olds in public and private schools nationwide, asks questions about harassment and bullying but doesn’t ask students for data on gender and sexuality. The School Survey on Crime and Safety, an annual survey distributed in more than 3,000 public schools nationwide, has a section that asks how many students are targeted based on gender and sexuality, but principals, not students, take the survey.

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The new report also pushes policy change, urging Congress to pass the Student Non-Discrimination Act, which would extend the status of protected class based on sexual orientation. Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have created their own legal protections against bullying on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, according to the report.

LGBT students experience higher levels of harassment than their heterosexual, cisgender peers, according to a 2013 report from the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network. More than half of LGBT students feel unsafe at school. Seventy-four percent of LGBT students say they’ve been verbally harassed, and 36 percent say they’ve been physically harassed because of their sexual orientation.

That study also showed a majority of students who were harassed did not report the incident to school staff for fear the issue would be swept under the rug. Researchers at the Equity Project say this is a big issue they’re trying to target.

“If LGBT students are being disciplined or bullied more seriously than other kids, those things have very serious consequences,” said Skiba.

This call to action raises questions about whether the change would be entirely positive for the LGBT student community. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act gives parents access to inspect and review their children’s educational records as long as they are under 18.

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For many, the idea of coming out, even on paper, and even in a secure and private way, can be stressful or even a deterrent to answering the survey honestly, according to the report. The idea of coming out on a form that one’s parents have access to could be an even bigger deal breaker.

For Scott Meyer, it certainly was. Meyer is a student teacher for high school freshmen and sophomores in a conservative county in Indiana. He didn’t come out until his senior year of high school, and although he attended a fairly forward-thinking private school, he said identifying as “homosexual” on a school survey would have been a difficult decision to make.

“It would have depended on who would have been able to see it,” Meyer told TakePart. “If it were a school guidance counselor or teachers, I wouldn’t care.... If it was available to my parent, that would have been a deterrent for me.”

Meyer said students at the Brown County public school where he teaches—and where the words “gay” and “faggot” are often used derogatorily—would probably have a similar reaction, especially if they thought their parents or other students might find out. Overall, however, he thinks the positives of measuring harassment and bullying in the LGBT community would outweigh the negatives by showing a disparity really exists.

“It would have a positive impact for those who don’t think [bullying and harassment in the LGBT community] is an issue. To actually show them, ‘Look, this is going on,’ you create the potential for a dialogue,” Meyer said.

“Our goal is to start the conversation,” Skiba said. “We hope it’s a good stimulus to expand data collection to enable us to know what harms the LGBT are facing.”