Dignity for All: Safeguarding LGBT Students


Peter Dewitt

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  • Dedication

    To my partner, Doug, for all of your support, encouragement, and guidance.


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    Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth are coming out at an earlier age than they did in years past. Many young adults in the LGBT community come out by the age of 15, and some have known their sexual identity since the age of 10. LGBT students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender often fear the consequences of coming out at such a young age. They fear losing friends and family and are often threatened by their peers. LGBT students are more likely to be harassed or abused by peers, which can negatively affect their school engagement and performance.

    In order for students to be engaged in school, they must feel safe in their school environment. School personnel can help this often mistreated group by providing safeguards and supports to protect LGBT students. School administrators have the influence and duty to create those safeguards and supports, and therefore, can have a profound impact on LGBT students. Safeguards and supports include codes of conduct and board policies as well as offering curriculum, resources, and after-school opportunities. This book explores safeguards and supports to help engage LGBT students.

    Who Should Read This Book

    Educators who believe they can change their school culture will gain insight by reading Dignity for All: Safeguarding LGBT Students because there are personal stories from the field as well as practical tips on how they can safeguard and support LGBT students in schools.

    Creating safe spaces, incorporating curriculum, and establishing Gay–Straight Alliances (GSA) are some of the ways educators can help LGBT students. Action steps are provided in this book to help educators find ways to make LGBT students feel safer in school. In addition, establishing a more accepting school climate will help students who come from diverse backgrounds feel more welcome in schools.

    Administrators need to read this book. As a practicing administrator, I understand that I influence the culture of the building, and teachers will only feel that they can step out of their comfort zone if I provide them with the environment to do so. It is an administrator's job to make staff and students feel safe so that students can explore a diverse curriculum that will help them become career and college ready. In addition, I understand that we need safeguards in our code of conduct as well as our school board policies so that we have support as we confront issues with parents and students. I have tried my best to provide steps to bring administrators closer to those safeguards in their school system. When all is said and done, every single student who enters school doors deserves an education that will help foster their imagination and help them find their strengths. It should not matter what their race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation is, and it is not the job of educators to be the gatekeepers to a quality education. All students deserve it.

    In addition, this is an important resource for parents. Parents have a role in the education of their children and deserve a place in the discussions that affect their children every day. When we involve parents in the discussions about our school systems, we get another voice that can lead to a stronger, more inclusive school system. The reality is that there are parents who disown their children when they identify as LGBT. This sad reality can happen for numerous reasons, but one of the biggest is that parents have not been exposed to people in the LGBT community. This book will offer resources to parents who lack exposure to LGBT issues.

    The Goal of This Book

    Through stories from LGBT students and adults, readers will be exposed to the real-life experiences of these individuals. This book will encourage educators to make at least one change in their classrooms or schools that will help an LGBT student feel safer and more welcome. A friend told me that he saw an LGBT student from Rochester, New York, speak once, and the teenager stood up in front of a crowd of educators and said, “You don't have to do everything; you just have to do something.” It is not my intention for readers to think they have to make every change I suggest, although that would be great, too. It is my intention to offer suggestions on where educators can make changes, and have them make one or two changes in their classrooms or schools. That alone may help an insecure LGBT student feel more secure.

    Changing a school system to be more inclusive for LGBT students is a net positive for all students because it provides them with the exposure to diverse people, which will help them when they reach adulthood and enter society. If it is good enough for a heterosexual student, it should be good enough for an LGBT student as well.

    The Approach of This Book

    I am a former elementary school teacher and a practicing elementary school principal. I work with students at their level, which means I do not use a great deal of educational jargon and try not to use big words. Although some readers may be uncomfortable addressing this issue, the book is designed to be a reader-friendly resource. I have included current and past research on all issues regarding LGBT students. I begin with why this is a timely and worthwhile topic, and then the book explores bullying, curriculum, GSAs, and school board policies, all of which will create a more inclusive school. Although the book does focus on the bullying of LGBT students, the suggestions I make can help with all bullying, not just one minority group.

    Readers should use this as both a handbook and a resource for a book-club discussion. I believe debate can be a healthy and enriching experience, and this book will inspire debates among readers. I understand that not everyone approves of homosexuality and many do not wish to highlight it in any way. That can have many negative effects on all students. Although not many people enjoy confrontation, it can be constructive when it leads to a better place among educators.

    Every chapter has both action steps and discussion questions. Action steps will provide readers with guidance when exploring adding safeguards to board policies and codes of conduct. The action steps will also help guide readers who want to begin a GSA in their school as well as providing guidance to those who wish to develop parent outreach programs. In addition to the action steps are discussion questions that readers can use for book-club discussions. Those questions can also be used if you are reading this book solely to find useful information. They may help you process each chapter after you read it.

    Why Readers Should Buy This Book

    I do not expect all readers to agree with my opinions, advice, and guidance. To some this book may offer good suggestions that they can use in their school. As an openly gay administrator, I understand that this book may be very controversial, and readers will struggle with some of my suggestions. It all depends where readers live and what they have been exposed to in their lives. Regardless of their circumstances, readers will gain insight into LGBT student and parent populations that they will come into contact with, and they deserve to be treated with the same level of respect as their heterosexual peers.

    Second, this book acts as a resource for educators when they begin to implement changes in their classrooms and schools. They need to know what to be aware of and have insight into how some community members and colleagues will react when they broach the topic of safeguarding LGBT students. I believe this book will be that resource to educators in a respectful way. It is not my intention to preach to readers why this is important; it is my intention to motivate others to start thinking about why this topic needs to be addressed.

    Third, regardless of what readers do with this book after they finish it, they will have a better understanding of how to change the school culture in their buildings. After reading this book, teachers can help change their classroom culture, which will begin a grassroots effort to change the culture in their schools. For administrators, this book will put a minority group of students on the radar, and by making simple changes to language, what is hung up on school walls, what appears on the school website, and what groups are allowed in the school, administrators will change the building's culture for the better, which will have a direct impact on all students.


    I would like to thank the following people who have helped my career in many different ways.

    Michelle Hebert, my editor and friend from SAANYS. Thank you for believing in my voice.

    Isabel Lim, Kathy Barrans, and Elaine Houston from WNYT (Albany, NBC affiliate).

    My Education Week editors, Stacy Morford and Elizabeth Rich.

    Ray O'Connell, Ann Myers, Jim Butterworth, Lee Wilson, Mark Stratton, Lori Caplan, and Maureen Long from the SAGE College Doctoral Program.

    Joe Kosciw, Eliza Byard, Daryl Presgraves, and Robert McGarry from GLSEN for their information, countless conversations, and friendship.

    Diane Ravitch for helping me find the courage to speak up.

    Arnis Burvikovs and Desirée A. Bartlett for the opportunity to publish with Corwin. It has been an honor to work with both of you.

    Thank you to my administrative colleagues, staff, and students for all of your support over the years (Saint Gregory's, Arlington, Glens Falls, Watervliet, and Averill Park).

    Most importantly, I would like to thank my mom, siblings, family, and friends for their support and encouragement over the years.

    Thanks Dad. You've always been here.

    Publisher's Acknowledgments

    Corwin would like to thank the following individuals for taking the time to provide their editorial insight and guidance:

    • Marie Blum, Superintendent
    • Canaseraga Central School District
    • Canaseraga, New York
    • Dalane E. Bouillion, Associate Superintendent for Curriculum & Instructional Services
    • Spring Independent School District
    • Houston, Texas
    • Connie C. Hanel, Corwin Author
    • Academic Achievement Specialist
    • Medaille College
    • Buffalo, New York
    • Kathleen Hwang, Principal
    • Sanders Corner Elementary School
    • Ashburn, Virginia
    • Susan Kessler, Executive Principal
    • Hunters Lane High School
    • Nashville, Tennessee
    • Amanda S. Mayeaux, Master Teacher
    • Glen Oaks Middle School
    • Baton Rouge, Louisiana
    • Michael McMann, Director of Climate and Culture
    • Fort Vermilion School Division
    • Fort Vermilion, Alberta, Canada
    • Diane Smith, School Counselor Smethport Area High School
    • Smethport, Pennsylvania

    About the Author

    Peter DeWitt, EdD, has been a principal in upstate New York since 2006. Prior to being a principal, he taught elementary school in several city schools for 11 years. In addition, Peter is an adjunct professor in the Graduate School of Education at the College of Saint Rose and has presented at state and national conferences around the United States.

    Since July 2011, Peter has been writing a blog titled “Finding Common Ground,” which is published by Education Week. In addition, he is a freelance writer for Vanguard magazine (School Administrators Association of New York State) and the International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE). His articles have appeared in education journals at the state, national, and international levels.

  • Appendix: NASP Position Statement: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning Youth

    The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) supports that all youth have equal opportunities to participate in and benefit from educational and mental health services within schools regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression. Harassment, lack of equal support, and other discriminatory practices toward lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) youth violate their rights to receive equal educational opportunities, regardless of whether the discrimination takes the form of direct harassment of individuals or is directed at the entire group through hostile statements or biases. Failure to address discriminatory actions in the school setting compromises student development and achievement. NASP believes that school psychologists are ethically obligated to ensure that all students have an equal opportunity for the development and expression of their personal identity in a school climate that is safe, accepting, and respectful of all persons and free from discrimination, harassment, violence, and abuse. To achieve this goal, education and advocacy must be used to reduce discrimination and harassment against LGBTQ youth by students and staff and promote positive social–emotional and educational development.

    When compared to youth who are heterosexual, youth who identify as LGBTQ or those who are gender nonconforming are more likely targeted for harassment and discrimination. For example, when over 7,000 LGBTQ students nationwide were surveyed regarding their school experiences, 84% reported being verbally harassed, 40% reported being physically harassed, and 18% reported being physically assaulted at school within the past year based on actual or perceived sexual orientation (Kosciw, Greytak, Diaz, & Bartkiewicz, 2010). Of the students who reported harassment experiences to school staff, one third said no subsequent school action was taken. Additionally, LGBTQ students were four times more likely than heterosexual students to report skipping at least one day of school in the previous month because they felt unsafe or uncomfortable. While LGBTQ youth appear to experience higher levels of mental health and academic difficulties, school-based social situations like victimization and lack of support are frequently related to these heightened risk levels (Bontempo & D'Augelli., 2002; Goodenow, Szalacha, & Westheimer, 2006). Whereas members of other minority groups likely share their unique identity with family members and a visible community, LGBTQ youth may have few to no opportunities to learn coping strategies related to dealing with anti-LGBTQ sentiments and behaviors from a family support network (Ryan & Futterman, 1998). Additionally, LGBTQ youth are at an increased risk for emotional and physical rejection by their families and may become homeless as a result of disclosing their sexual orientation or gender identity (Rivers & D'Augelli, 2001). Concealing one's LGBTQ identity may increase a youth's risk for anxiety, depression, hostility, demoralization, guilt, shame, social avoidance, isolation, and impaired relationships (Pachankis, 2007).

    Creating Safe Schools for LGBTQ Youth

    Individual and systems-level advocacy, education, and specific intervention efforts are needed to create safe and supportive schools for LGBTQ youth. These should include, but not be limited to, the following strategies.

    Establish and enforce comprehensive nondiscrimination and antibullying policies that include LGBTQ issues. Many schools already have nondiscrimination policies, but these may not include reference to sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression. Explicitly including these characteristics in policy statements gives legitimacy to LGBTQ concerns and keeps schools accountable for enforcing nondiscrimination and antibullying standards. Explicit policies also support staff who may fear repercussions for openly intervening and advocating for LGBTQ youth.

    Educate students and staff. NASP supports educating students and staff about LGBTQ youth and their needs through professional development about the range of normal human diversity that includes sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression. Professional development training can lead to immediate and maintained improvements in students' and educators' motivation to interrupt harassing remarks and increased awareness of LGBTQ issues and resources (Greytak & Kosciw, 2010). NASP also supports the provision of information and training about relevant research, the risks experienced by these youth, effective strategies for addressing harassment and discrimination directed toward any student, and improving the school climate (e.g., inservices, staff development, policy development, research briefs, and program implementation). In addition, creating an educational context that includes the broad array of human diversity can help demystify sexual orientation and gender identity, along with promoting a positive self-concept for LGBTQ youth. This can include infusing issues pertaining to sexual orientation and gender identity into the curriculum, which may decrease feelings of isolation and promote a more positive self-concept. Curricula may include presenting theories about the development of sexual orientation or gender identity in a science class; reading works of famous gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender authors in a literature class; discussing the LGBTQ rights movement in historical context with other civil rights movements in a social studies class; or including LGBTQ demographic statistics in math exercises. In addition, including LGBTQ issues in health education can increase decision-making skills for all youth by preparing them to make positive choices and reducing unsafe behavior.

    Intervene directly with perpetrators. As with any instance of school violence, harassment and discrimination against LGBTQ youth, or any gender nonconforming youth, should be addressed both through applying consequences and educating the perpetrator. Education should be provided to the perpetrator to help prevent future aggression. Interventions should emphasize that discrimination and harassment must be addressed regardless of the status of the perpetrator. Youth, teachers, support staff, and administrators must be educated to make policies effective.

    Provide intervention and support for those students targeted for harassment and intimidation and those exploring their sexuality or gender identity. Up to one fourth of adolescents may question their sexual orientation or gender identity (Hollander, 2000). School personnel should make no assumptions about youth who may be questioning, but provide opportunities for students to develop healthy identities. In addition to sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression, other diversity characteristics (e.g., gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status) may add additional challenges or serve as strengths toward positive mental health and academic development and should be considered. Counseling and other supports should be made available for students who have been targets of harassment, for those who are questioning their sexual orientation or gender identity, for those who are perceived as LGBTQ by peers or others, and for those who may become targets of harassment in the future by disclosing their status as LGBTQ (e.g., Gay-Straight Alliance). Interventions should focus on strategies that allow students to experience safety and respect in the school environment, including empowerment of students to address harassment of students who are LGBTQ.

    Promote societal and familial attitudes and behaviors that affirm the dignity and rights within educational environments of LGBTQ youth. Schools should promote awareness, acceptance, and accommodation of LGBTQ students and their needs in fair ways. Schools can promote attitudes that affirm the dignity and rights of LGBTQ youth by becoming aware of and eliminating biases from their own practice. They can model nondiscriminatory practice by providing services to all students regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity/expression, or other minority status. School psychologists can promote and model affirming attitudes, use language that is nondiscriminatory and inclusive, and educate students and staff. Moreover, schools can function as powerful agents of change when they actively address slurs and openly confront discrimination, and they can address the actions or statements of other school staff or administrators who neglect the needs of LGBTQ youth or who actively discriminate against them. School psychologists can provide information, expert opinions, and evidence-based strategies to ensure that effective policies and practices are adopted and enforced, increasing the acceptance and tolerance of differences in the school environment by supporting development of student groups that promote understanding and acceptance of human diversity. Gay-straight alliances (GSAs) have a positive impact on school climate (Kosciw, Diaz, Greytak, & Bartkiewicz, 2010) and should be supported by school psychologists. Students who reported having GSAs in their schools were less likely to feel unsafe, less likely to miss school, and were more likely to feel that they belonged at their school than students in school with no such clubs (Kosciw et al.). Schools should also be informed about programs in the community that facilitate and support healthy development of LGBTQ youth and support their families, and be prepared to advise parents, school personnel, and youth about these resources.

    Recognize strengths and resilience. While much of the research has focused on negative factors impacting the development of LGBTQ youth, there are strengths as well. Savin-Williams (2009) posits a developmental trajectory that can impact a student positively or negatively with regard to psychosocial and educational domains. Further review of the research indicates that LGBTQ youth are capable of developing methods to keep themselves safe and find support from their environment. School psychologists should work to identify and build strengths and resilience in LGBTQ youth.

    Role of the School Psychologist

    School psychologists can function as role models of ethical practice and inform staff and students that they are available to all students regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. School psychologists can address issues of sexual orientation and gender identity in inservice training with teachers and programming for parents, actively counter discriminatory practices, and utilize NASP and other resources to advocate for LGBTQ youth. On an individual level, in counseling sessions, school psychologists can be mindful that sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression encompass a broad spectrum, and that many students question their sexual orientation and gender identity or are gender nonconforming. School psychologists are also in a position to educate students about a number of issues related to high risk behaviors that are especially frequent among gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and questioning youth, creating a more inclusive and healthier environment for both the school population in general and LGBTQ youth in particular.


    NASP recognizes that students who identify as LGBTQ, or those who are gender nonconforming, may be at risk for experiencing harassment and discrimination, as well as risk factors for social, emotional, and academic problems related to psychosocial stressors (Bontempo & D'Augelli, 2002; D'Augelli, 2006; Ryan & Futterman 1998). A successful program to address these issues educates both those who discriminate and those who are discriminated against because of sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender nonconformity. School psychologists can participate in education and advocacy on a number of levels by promoting nondiscrimination policies; conducting schoolwide inservice training; actively addressing discrimination and neglect of student needs; sharing information about human diversity and evidence-based practices to address student needs; and modeling ethical practice through accepting and affirming attitudes, language, and behaviors in daily interactions with all students and staff. In addition, school psychologists can provide intervention to individual students. Any program designed to address the needs of LGBTQ youth should also include efforts to educate and support parents and the community through collecting information about services and establishing involvement with other organizations committed to equal opportunity for education and mental health services for all youth. Schools can only be truly safe when every student, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression, is assured of access to an education without fear of harassment, discrimination, or violence.

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    Adopted by the NASP Delegate Assembly on July 16, 2011. Please cite this document as: National Association of School Psychologists. (2011). Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) youth (Position Statement). Bethesda, MD: Author.
    © 2011 National Association of School Psychologists, 4340 East West Highway, Suite 402, Bethesda, MD 20814.


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    Szalacha, L. (2001). The sexual diversity climate of Massachusetts' secondary schools and the success of the safe schools program for gay and lesbian students. Boston, MA: Harvard University.
    Szalacha, L. (2003). Safer sexual diversity climates: Lessons learned from an evaluation of the Massachusetts Safe Schools Program for gay and lesbian students. American Journal of Education, 110, 58–88. http://dx.doi.org/10.1086/377673
    Thiede, H., Valleroy, L. A., MacKellar, D. A., Celentano, D. D., Ford, W. L., Hagan, H., Koblin, B. A., … Torian, L. V. (2003). Regional patterns and correlates of substance use among young men who have sex with men in 7 US urban areas. American Journal of Public Health, 93, 11, 1915–1921. http://dx.doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.93.11.1915
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    Corwin: A SAGE Company

    The Corwin logo—a raven striding across an open book—represents the union of courage and learning. Corwin is committed to improving education for all learners by publishing books and other professional development resources for those serving the field of PreK–12 education. By providing practical, hands-on materials, Corwin continues to carry out the promise of its motto: “Helping Educators Do TheirWork Better.”

    The National Association of School Psychologists

    The National Association of School Psychologists represents school psychology and supports school psychologists to enhance the learning and mental health of all children and youth.

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