Guest Commentary

The real-life costs of bullying and discrimination in Tucson schools

In the last year, there have been too many stories about anti-gay bullying at school.

Several years ago, we began a collaboration between the University of Arizona and the YWCA Tucson to help local students voice their concerns and share their experiences; we wanted to better understand discrimination and prejudice and its effects on students. Data collected over the last few years from hundreds of Tucson middle school students show that 46 percent of the students say kids get bullied because they are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT)—or someone thinks they are—and 38 percent say students get bullied due to their race or ethnicity.

We didn't previously know that LGBT school victimization in middle and high schools had such a powerful influence on health and mental health in young adulthood. New research published in the Journal of School Health shows the pervasive effects of LGBT school victimization nearly a decade later on the health and adjustment of LGBT young adults.

The study, based on a group of LGBT young adults from California, showed that those who reported high levels of LGBT school victimization during adolescence were 5.6 times more likely to report having attempted suicide, 2.6 times more likely to report clinical levels of depression, and more than twice as likely to have been diagnosed with a sexually transmitted disease and to report risk for HIV infection.

Alternatively, LGBT young adults who reported low levels of school victimization showed higher levels of self-esteem, life satisfaction and social integration compared to peers with high levels of school victimization during adolescence.

While it may seem that many—including the mainstream media—have finally discovered that anti-LGBT bullying is widespread, and that some LGBT youth have always been at high risk for attempted suicide, these are longstanding problems.

In the past, some schools have minimized and denied the impact of bullying related to discrimination and prejudice by saying that such bullying is pervasive and expected, so it cannot be prevented. But it is time to get real and realistic. We know the impact of discriminatory bullying, and we also know the strategies that can make schools safe for all students.

Over the past two decades, research has shown the kinds of actions that promote safe learning environments for LGBT students—and all other students. These include clear and inclusive anti-discrimination and anti-bullying policies that include LGBT identity and gender expression; staff training and intervention when discriminatory harassment occurs; the presence of gay-straight alliances and other student-sponsored diversity clubs; and the inclusion of LGBT issues in the curriculum.

These strategies are particularly relevant in Tucson—not only for our LGBT students, but for students enrolled in (or wanting to be enrolled in) ethnic studies. Just like for LGBT students, we know that these same strategies of inclusion make schools safer and more productive learning environments for racial and ethnic minority students. The firestorm in Tucson about ethnic studies is rooted in an understanding that when you see yourself reflected in the formal curriculum of a school, you feel more connected to school and to a place in history—and we know that this matters for achievement.

Despite this knowledge, most students in our state do not have protection related to sexual orientation and gender identity. This spring, Arizona Senate Minority Leader David Schapira introduced an anti-bullying law that would provide this protection; it never made it out of committee. The move to ban ethnic studies only makes matters worse.

Students need supportive learning environments where they see themselves reflected in the curriculum, and they need teachers to disrupt discrimination and prejudice when it happens. We have models of that in our community, and we need to support those models now more than ever.

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