Saturday, May 12, 2012

What's Your LGBT IQ?

A very interesting article appeared in the April 2012 Journal of Counseling & Development entitled, "Examining School Counseling Students' Multicultural and Sexual Orientation Competencies Through a Cross-Specialization Comparison."  (Biddell, 2012) That's a very long and wordy title, but basically the author studied the differences between community counselors and school counselors with regards to their knowledge on issues surrounding sexual orientation as well as the skills they have developed to support those who may identify as gay or lesbian.

The results were, at least in my mind, not surprising.  School counselors reported significantly lower  levels of multicultural and sexual orientation competencies as compared to those in community settings.  The author does point out some possible flaws in the study--small sample, not random, does not cover gender-identity, and the data is based on self-reporting. (Biddell, 2012)  However, as there have been very few studies on the topic of school counselor training and competence with regards to LGBT issues, it is certainly a starting-off point.  The author discusses some of the factors that he believes contribute to this lack of skill.  Schools are, generally, more conservative and under more public scrutiny than community counseling settings.  As such, teachers, counselors, and school staff can be made to fear for their jobs if they attempt to advocate for gay and lesbian students by such activities as sponsoring a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA).  Further, while there is an expectation that counselor-education programs' multicultural courses cover sexual orientation, according to the author many programs and courses do not adequately prepare future school counselors to work with this subgroup.  For those programs that do devote trainings and classes to LGBT topics and skills, they tend to score higher on self-reported assessments of counselor competencies. (Biddell, 2012).

This certainly supports my own experiences in the field.  Northern Virginia is home to several strong, CACREP graduate programs in school counseling.  Yet, what I have heard from many colleagues is that this topic was left out or barely-covered in their programs.  Oftentimes there is simply only so much time in multicultural counseling courses and skills seminars, and coordinators and professors have to pick and choose what specific subgroups they may plan to cover.  I was at a conference this past year and attended a session about some of the latest research in counseling LGBT clients.  Afterwards, a director of a university counseling program began a discussion with the presenter about bringing them in, either in person or via webinar to do a similar presentation for the program's graduate students, as they currently did not have anything in the curriculum to cover that topic.  Thus, public schools are staffed with new school counselors who may have very little exposure and knowledge about working with LGBT students and families, or they have seasoned school counselors who have also never had training on this particular topic.  Why does this all matter?

There are several reasons why this knowledge gap needs to be filled in.  First, as I've written about here, and here, and here, students who either identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) or who are perceived as LGBT or gender-non-conforming are at a higher risk for being bullied, harassed, assaulted, for avoiding school, for lower-grades, and for dropping out (source: www.glsen.org).  If you have seen this video made by students in Illinois or watched as Kelby struggled with her Oklahoma school in the movie, Bully, you have some idea of what LGBT students face on a daily basis.  As school counselors, one of our primary missions, according to our national organization, the American School Counselor Association, is to remove barriers for students to academic success.  It is thus one of our missions to make sure that all of our students, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity, are able to feel safe in school so that instead of avoiding classes, students, and teachers who may harass and bully them, they are instead in classes with supportive adults and peers, focusing only on the academic material at hand.  Secondly, it is an ethical mandate of the American School Counselor Association.

From the preamble of the ethical code (addition of boldface is mine):
"Each person has the right to be respected, be treated with dignity and have access to a comprehensive school counseling program that advocates for and affirms all students from diverse populations including: ethnic/racial identity, age, economic status, abilities/ disabilities, language, immigration status, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity/expression, family type, religious/spiritual identity and appearance." (source: www.schoolcounselor.org)
E.2.b:
"Develop competencies in how prejudice, power and various forms of oppression, such as ableism, ageism, classism, familyism, genderism, heterosexism, immigrationism, linguicism, racism, religionism, and sexism, affect self, students and all stakeholders." (source: www.schoolcounselor.org)
E.2.c:
"Acquire educational, consultation and training experiences to improve awareness, knowledge, skills and effectiveness in working with diverse populations: ethnic/racial status, age, economic status, special needs, ESL or ELL, immigration status, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity/expression, family type, religious/spiritual identity and appearance." (source: www.schoolcounselor.org)
Thus, it is our professional responsibility as school counselors to serve and respect LGBT students, regardless of our own personal feelings and views on the topic of homosexuality and gender identity, and also to seek out professional development opportunities and education if we do not feel we possess the knowledge and skills necessary to adequately work with those students.  If you did not receive it in your graduate program, whether it was last year or 20 years ago, you should seek out opportunities to further your education on this topic.  Third, there are now legal implications for schools and school systems who are found to be unsupportive of LGBT students.  The Anoka-Hennapin school district in Minnesota recently settled a lawsuit concerning bullying and harassment of LGBT students.  This week the Hanover school district in Pennsylvania is in the spotlight because of alleged harassment of a gay student by a teacher.  The student's mother has not yet retained legal counsel, but she has enlisted the help of a local LGBT affirming group to support both her and her son through the situation.  Lastly, if you are in elementary school or middle school, you may be thinking to yourself that this is really only an issue for high-school counselors and their students.  Think again.  A recent study by GLSEN discusses the prevalence of bullying gender-non-conforming children in elementary schools as well as the sometimes unwelcoming environment same-sex parents find when they go into their child's school.  Further, various reports over the last couple of years state that more and more middle-school students are coming-out of the closet as gay or lesbian at earlier ages.  This is an topic that effects all school counselors at all stages of child development.

So, how do you begin to acquire this knowledge?:
  • Read articles in professional publicationsASCA won an award for their School Counselor magazine that focused on LGBT issues in schools.  ASCA also does the magazine, published three times a year, for many states.  The Spring edition was about bullying, and featured an article by yours truly on how homophobic language hurts all students--check out page 18 in the Kansas edition.   Counseling Today, the monthly magazine put out by the American Counseling Association, regularly features articles on LGBT issues in counseling.  You can also find articles about the topic on the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GSLEN) website.
  • Attend conferences.  The national American School Counselor Association conference is coming up in June, and there are at least three LGBT specific sessions to be found.  Further, if you belong to your state school-counselor association, or any other local counseling chapters, there are bound to be conferences and professional developments about this topic.  If you are unable to find something on LGBT issues in schools, look for topics such as LGBT issues and children or adolescents, LGBT families, bullying and harassment, etc.  Any workshop that adds to your knowledge base of LGBT issues, in general, is only going to help your work with your students and families.
  • Explore online options.  ASCA is doing a series of webinars.  One of them in February explored supporting LGBTQ youth, and one coming up in October will look specifically at creating a safe-and-supportive environment for all elementary school students, including those who are gender-non-conforming.  GLSEN also sponsors webinars on LGBT topics in schools and with youth.  I would also recommend taking a look at a class through Rutgers on LGBTQ topics in schools--it covers the basics and gets you thinking about how you would deal with certain situations in your own school and district.
  • Ask for professional development in your school and/or district.  This may be something you have to feel out a bit, but if there are enough counselors in your school or district who feel this is a need, maybe it is time to have a discussion with your central office about getting a workshop.  Maybe you or someone else in your district has enough knowledge that you/they could present?  If not, you can look to GLSEN or Rutgers for some additional support in either having a training or having someone help you to develop your own training for your school. 
Anytime you can share an article with other professionals in your building--teachers, administrators--the more you also be educating your whole building on the issues pertaining to LGBT students and families.  If you do decide to do an online training or attend a conference session, see if you can get another counselor or principal in your building to attend with you.  Is it possible to get a whole-school training on the topic?  Given the prevalence of LGBT bullying and harassment in schools that is currently being portrayed in the media, now may be the time that you can get community buy-in to have some professional development on this topic.  Regardless, whether it is your whole school, a small group, or just you as an individual, it is important that all school counselors become familiar with the risk-factors present for LGBT students as well as best-practices for how to assist them.  If you have not yet dealt with this issue in your job, I can almost promise you that you will at some point.  When that time comes, it will benefit both you and the student/family if you have already gained knowledge, familiarity, and a certain level of comfort with this topic versus flying blind.  Further, by getting this information, you will be best able to lead your whole school community in ethically and properly supporting a middle school student who comes out of the closet, an elementary school student who was born a male but who identifies as female, or a gay high-school student who has special considerations when applying to colleges.  Thus, in the future, there is hope that studies will no longer show that school counselors lack competency to support these students as they move towards academic success.

The following article was sited within this blog post:
Bidell, M. (2012).  Examining school counseling students' multicultural and sexual orientation competencies through a cross-specialization comparison.  Journal of Counseling and Development 90, 200-207.

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