School Culture Can Contribute to Bullying of LGBT, Immigrant Students

Nearly 80 percent of LGBT teens say teachers don’t address anti-gay bullying.

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Immigrant students and LGBT high schoolers are often the target of verbal and physical bullying.
Immigrant students and LGBT high schoolers are often the target of verbal and physical bullying.

Jockeying for popularity and status within high school cliques can bring out the worst in teens. Students at the center of their social circles are often more likely to be bullies, and they tend to target teens they see as different or weak.

Immigrant students and LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) youth typically fit that bill, and addressing bullying aimed at these students can require a different approach, experts said during a panel discussion on Monday at the Federal Partners in Bullying Prevention Summit, hosted by the Department of Education and other government agencies.

[Learn why school buses breed bullying.]

"We need to ask, 'What is it about the school that permits bullying to take place?' … and consider how the whole school contributes to bullying," Robert McGarry, director of education at the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, said at the panel.

Nearly 85 percent of LGBT students say they are verbally harassed and 40 percent report physical harassment because of their sexual orientation, according to a 2009 study by GLSEN, which surveyed more than 7,200 middle and high school students for the report.

But according to McGarry, almost 80 percent of teens say their teachers do little or nothing to stop anti-LGBT bullying when they see it. School clubs such as gay-straight alliances and supportive teachers and administrators can make help make LGBT students feel more accepted at their schools, he added.

For immigrant students, racial and ethnic stereotypes can make them easy targets for bullies, but language barriers and concerns over legal status mean many incidents go unreported, Khin Mai Aung, director of the Educational Equity and Youth Rights Project at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said at Monday's panel.

[Find out how to help if your teen is bullied.]

Interpreters and translation services, often available through the state, allow students to report harassment to teachers and administrators, giving them the opportunity to address the bullying before it escalates, Aung said.

"It's important that students are able to express these incidents in the language they're familiar with," she said.

Talking about current or historical events involving immigrant communities can also help prevent bullying by humanizing those groups to other students, Aung noted. How teachers frame classroom discussions on immigration reform or marriage equality can signal to LGBT and immigrant students whether the adults at their school are safe places to turn, panelists said.

Having that support system at school is critical for bullied students, said McGarry, with GLSEN.

"One supportive adult can save a life," he said. "Six or more can change a culture."

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