Sunday, January 22, 2012

Think homophobic bullying is not occuring in elementary school? Think again.

Another child has killed himself, reportedly because of bullying due to his sexual orientation.  Phillip Parker, a 14 year old boy in Tennessee, had stated to his grandmother:

"He kept telling me he had a rock on his chest," said Ruby Harris, Phillip’s grandmother. "He just wanted to take the rock off where he could breathe." (source: www.wbir.com)
Phillip was 14 years old, just in his first year of high school.

Additionally, more LGBT families are having children and raising families.  The children of these families, though, can often find themselves ridiculed by peers based on their parents sexual orientation.  Claire Davidson-Shermann is one such student.  She was made fun of in her elementary school in Omaha, Nebraska, for having two mothers.  For Phillip, the tauntings that led him to take his own life very well could have begun years ago when he was in the primary grades.  For Claire, her young peers recognized a difference in her family and used it to bully her.  In a new study released this past week by the Gay, Lesbian, & Straight Education Network (GLSEN), the roots of homophobic bullying and stereotyping are shown to begin early in the elementary school years.

Much of the research into the bullying of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth has been done at the middle and high-school levels.  This new study, Playgrounds and Prejudice: Elementary School Climate in the United States, examines how our younger children interact with each other and school communities with regards to gender stereotypes, sexual orientation, and bullying.  The survey gathered data from both students and teachers in elementary schools.  Key findings are:
  • About half of students (45%) report that they hear comments like “that’s so gay” or “you're so gay” from other kids at school sometimes, often or all the time. Half of teachers (49%) say they hear students in their school use the word “gay” in a negative way sometimes, often or very often.
  • Four in ten students (39%) say they hear other kids at their school say there are things that boys should not do or should not wear because they are boys at least sometimes. One third of students (33%) say they hear other kids at their school say there are things that girls should not do or should not wear because they are girls at least sometimes.
  • One quarter of students (26%) and teachers (26%) report hearing other students make comments like “fag” or “lesbo” at least sometimes.
  • Three quarters (75%) of elementary school students report that students at their school are called names, made fun of or bullied with at least some regularity (i.e., all the time, often or sometimes).
  • Nearly one half of elementary school teachers believe that bullying, name‐calling or harassment is a very or somewhat serious problem at their school (47%).
  • Two thirds of students attribute the bullying and name‐calling that they witness at school to students’ appearance or body size (67%). Students are next most likely to attribute the bullying and name‐calling to not being good at sports (37%), how well they do at schoolwork (26%) and being a boy who acts or looks “too much like a girl” or a girl who acts or looks “too much like a boy” (23%).
  • Seven in ten teachers say that students in their school are very often, often or sometimes bullied, called names or harassed because of the way they look or their body size (70%). Teachers are also likely to report that students in their school are frequently bullied, called names or harassed because of their ability at school (60%), they have a disability (39%), their family does not have a lot of money (37%), they are a boy who acts or looks “too much like a girl" (37%) or their race/ethnicity (35%).
  • Students who do not conform to traditional gender norms are more likely than others to say they are called names, made fun of or bullied at least sometimes at school (56% vs. 33%). (source:  www.glsen.org)
What kind of effect does this have on students?  Very similar to middle and high-school students, elementary students who report being bullied are more likely to report lower grades, a lack of desire to attend school, fewer connections to family and friends, and are more likely to feel "stressed."  (source:  www.glsen.org)  If these students are feeling this way in elementary school, how are they likely to feel when they hit middle school, a time that school counselors know children are struggling even more to fit in and find their identity?

Further on in the report, the beliefs of the teachers are discussed.  Teachers, in general, believe that it is their responsibility and obligation to provide a safe and welcoming environment for students who do not conform to traditional gender roles, as well as to LGBT parents and families.  Further, they feel that there is support from other teachers and administrators in their buildings to address non-traditional gender roles and LGBT families with students and their school community.  However, they waiver in feeling there is support from school boards and central office staffs for training and curriculum on these issues. (source: www.glsen.org)

What can we do?  In this same report, teachers report receiving professional development and training on working with diversity and with multicultural issues, but few have received training on working with LGBT families or non-gender conforming students.  I interpret all of these findings as saying that school staffs are eager and ready to help these students and these families, but they are looking for guidance, resources, and support.  As school counselors, we are often seen to be the leaders in our buildings when it comes to understanding human development as well as helping to design and facilitate school-wide curricula that address harassment and bullying.  I often wonder, though, if most school counselors feel that they themselves have had sufficient training on LGBT students, families, and children that do not conform to traditional gender roles.  If my very unscientific polling from conferences and colleagues is any indication, the answer is, no.  Those of us coming out of graduate programs receive a great deal of training on diversity and multiculturalism, which is definitely a step in the right direction. However, it seems to me that oftentimes, because of a lack of time, LGBT issues are either given very scant attention, or none at all.  I say this not to lay any blame on graduate programs, but rather to make the point that perhaps we need to receive more training on this topic once we begin our jobs as counselors to better be able to serve our students, their families, and school communities.

GLSEN will be holding a webinar on February 1st at 3 p.m. to begin the education process and to discuss their new elementary curriculum, Ready, Set, Respect!  If you feel this is something that is timely for your school or that you feel ready to receive more training on, I highly recommend registering at the link provided.

Claire's story has a positive ending--her teacher was able to address the bullying, and for now, things are going well.  Her parents recognize, though, that there may be hurdles to overcome in the future.  I do wonder, though, how many more Phillip's are going to have to die before we, as school counselors, and as a society in general, truly begin to address this issue.  This is not a topic that is about politics or religion or values.  It's a topic about life and death.

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