Survey Finds Persistent Bullying of LGBTQ Students in NJ High Schools

Colleen O'Dea | January 14, 2019 | Social
‘The numbers are alarming,’ says Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, who was a prime sponsor of anti-bullying legislation. She’s working on a new measure

Credit: Lightfield Studios/Shutterstock
Bullying in school
Gay, bisexual and transgender students in New Jersey high schools continue to face bullying, harassment, discrimination and even physical violence eight years after the enactment of a tough anti-bullying law, a new survey of LGBTQ students found.

Results of the 2017 online survey of students’ experiences in secondary schools by the organization GLSEN, whose goal is to improve the education system for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer students — and for students who are questioning their sexual identity — indicate New Jersey’s LGBTQ students faced slightly less prejudice and harassment than those elsewhere in the nation. Still, a large majority face bullying or harassment and attend schools without an inclusive curriculum or policies supportive of transgender or gender-nonconforming students.

“I am very disappointed and disheartened by these statistics,” said Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, D-Bergen, a prime sponsor of the anti-bullying law that requires schools to protect against and try to prevent the harassment, intimidation or bullying (HIB) of students for any reason. “The numbers are alarming.”

Specifically, the survey results for New Jersey showed:

  • Seventy-nine percent regularly heard homophobic remarks, with 14 percent hearing some comments from school staff; 32 percent heard staff regularly make negative remarks about someone’s gender expression;
  • Twenty percent had faced physical harassment and 9 percent were assaulted during the previous year due to their sexual orientation or gender expression;
  • Almost a quarter were unable to use the locker room or bathroom aligning with their gender.
  • What the law says

    The 2011 Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act requires schools to pursue and prevent harassment, intimidation or bullying. It sets strict procedures for investigating reported incidents and provides guidance on setting up programs to raise awareness of the problem and build a positive and supportive climate in schools, including through an annual “week of respect” each October.

    Public schools are required to set up comprehensive policies to deal with bullying and violence, but fewer than a quarter of the students who answered the GLSEN survey said they attended a school with a comprehensive anti-bullying policy. It’s unclear whether the policies really do not exist, or whether the students were not aware of them.

    “All students must feel safe at school,” said Michael Yaple, a spokesman for the state Department of Education. “School districts must adopt and adhere to policies that ensure schools remain secure and inclusive environments.”

    “This was a major piece of legislation that posed some challenges,” Huttle said. “I really thought that after eight years, we were resolving those challenges … We have to make sure districts are adhering to the anti-bullying law. Preventing incidents is why the bill was written.”

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    The first year after the law took effect, more than 12,000 bullying incidents statewide were reported. In 2015-2016, the number of incidents had been cut by more than half. But in 2016-2017, the most recent year for which data was reported, schools reported some 400 more incidents of HIB, for a total of 6,419. It may be that only a fraction of LGBTQ bullying incidents wind up reported; the GLSEN survey found that almost half of those who were on the receiving end of HIB did not report the incident to school authorities. Of those who did, only a third said their report led to an effective staff intervention.

    Hostile environments

    Rachel Wainer Apter, director of the state’s Division on Civil Rights, said students should be reporting incidents. “New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination, one of the strongest civil rights statutes in the country, prohibits discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation, and the Division on Civil Rights works hard to enforce this law each day,” she said. “I encourage anyone who is being harassed or victimized because of their sexual orientation or gender identity to contact the division.”

    LGBTQ Bullying, Fig 1
    “This research makes clear that many LGBTQ students in New Jersey are facing hostile environments that lack many of the resources that make their schools safe spaces for them to attend,” said Laurie McGuire, GLSEN Southern New Jersey chair. “Leaders throughout the state of New Jersey must prioritize the safety and well-being of all students by supporting comprehensive policies and practices that are inclusive and affirming of LGBTQ students.”

    State Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal said his office continues to work with state Department of Education officials on school safety issues.

    “All students in New Jersey are entitled to a safe and supportive school environment, and no one should be discriminated against or harassed based on their sexual orientation or gender identity at school,” Grewal said. “We have worked closely with, and will continue to work closely with, the Department of Education to ensure that LGBTQ students are safe at school.”

    Still, the survey found that more than half of LGBTQ students experienced at least one type of discrimination in school during the previous year. These included being disciplined for showing affection in school when non-LGBTQ students did not face the same punishment, being unable to bring a same-gender date to a school dance and being prohibited from wearing a pro-LGBTQ shirt to school. One in 10 reported being prevented from forming a Gay-Straight Alliance or Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA) club.

    Important to have supportive staff

    GSAs and supportive faculty are important to helping students feel comfortable in school, said Dinean Robinson, GLSEN Northern New Jersey chair.

    “I think what’s needed most now is for more organizations such as GLSEN to be able to work with schools on ways to implement policies that bring the (anti-bullying) legislation to life in the school community,” she said. “Too many schools in Northern New Jersey don’t know how to create safe spaces for LGTBQ students or what it means to have an inclusive curriculum. Anecdotally, in schools where there’s not a GSA, out faculty, or a shared understanding that the school environment is safe for all, LGBTQ students are feeling isolated. This is especially true for black and Latinx LGBTQ students.”

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    The survey found that fewer than three-quarters of high schools had a GSA or similar club supportive of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning students.

    Huttle is hoping another bill she is sponsoring will help in at least one area — the lack of a curriculum that includes information about prominent LGBTQ individuals. A-1335, which has passed both houses of the Legislature and is awaiting action by Gov. Phil Murphy, would require middle and high schools to include within the curriculum instruction about the political, economic, and social contributions of persons with disabilities and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. The mandate would begin in the 2020-2021 school year.

    Just one in four survey respondents said they were taught an inclusive curriculum that had positive representations of LGBTQ people, history, or events.

    Make school better for all students

    “The intention of this bill is to continue the work begun with the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act,” Huttle said, noting schools would be required to “accurately portray” members of the LGBTQ community, as well as people with disabilities.

    Yaple said the DOE continues to look for ways to make school better for all students. “While New Jersey has been a leader in the nation in enacting strong anti-bullying laws, the Department of Education is continually striving to improve the culture and climate in all schools,” he said.

    The department recently issued guidance documents regarding transgender students which were developed in cooperation with LGBTQ advocacy groups and other stakeholders. The DOE also established the School Climate Transformation Project and just last month released a guide to assist schools in building a positive school climate.

    “We continue to refine our training programs in social and emotional learning,” Yaple added.

    “All people deserve to see themselves reflected in their school environments and this research shows that New Jersey schools have a long way to go to become inclusive of LGBTQ students’ lives and experiences,” Robinson said. “Schools in New Jersey must work to change this by supporting student-led GSA clubs, providing professional development that helps educators prevent harassment and bullying, creating and implementing policies that protect LGBTQ students and increasing access to curriculum that accurately depicts and affirms diverse LGBTQ people, history, and events.”

    The national survey included 425 students in New Jersey, 86 percent of whom attended public schools. It has a margin of error of +/- 5 percent.