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Statement on School Safety Session

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Joanna Cifredo
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Remarks by Eliza Byard, PhD, Executive Director, GLSEN
Federal Commission on School Safety Meeting - Listening Session
June 6, 2018

WASHINGTON, DC (June 7, 2018) –Yesterday, the Federal Commission on School Safety held a Listening Session with educational experts and gun violence activist. The following testimony was given by Dr. Eliza Byard, GLSEN Executive Director during the session:

Thank you for the opportunity to provide comment to the Federal Commission on School Safety this afternoon. My name is Eliza Byard, and I am the Executive Director of GLSEN, a longtime organizational partner to the Departments of Education, Justice, and Health and Human Services and other federal agencies in years past, as we worked together to improve school climates in all 50 states and create the equitable and safe conditions for learning that allow every child to thrive. Many experts and survivors are here today to speak specifically to students’ access to guns, and the increasing lethality of school shootings in the absence of commonsense regulation of assault weapons.

My comments today focus on upstream approaches to addressing root causes of student alienation, anxiety, and fear – the ways that school climate and culture can support healthy social and emotional development and connections among students to increase their sense of safety, their health, their learning, and their investment in our common future. The issue of school safety and school connectedness, about which this Commission is tasked with making recommendations, have been the focus of my career for eighteen years. I am pleased to report that there is plenty of evidence to highlight educationally- and developmentally-appropriate ways to ensure that all children feel safe and are safe at school. And there is concrete experience from the recent past to show it is possible, on a national scale, to reduce violence among students and mitigate the individual student experiences – of mental health issues, poverty, experiences of injustice and adult cruelty or indifference – that can, in extreme cases, lead to lethal violence.

With federal leadership on school climate and safety, including a deep and systemic focus on civil rights oversight and enforcement, our country had, as of 2016, begun to turn the tide on bullying and bias violence in our K-12 schools. According to this Department’s own report drawn from the 2015 School Crime Supplement to the National Crime Victimization Survey, the vast collective effort led by the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services, including dozens of federal, non-profit, and state & district partners managed to effect an 11% drop in rates of bullying nationwide between 2007-2015. During that same period, the use of hate language by students against their peers also declined, by 3% across the U.S.

GLSEN has been deeply invested in this effort for more than 28 years, focused on the multiple, specific challenges faced by LGBTQ students – who exist in every community, and are of every race, religion, national origin, ability, and immigration status there is. Our student constituents face more hostile school climates than their heterosexual peers, and feel less safe as a result. In 2015, 89.4% of LGBTQ students reported personally experiencing some type of victimization at school – including bullying, assault, and official discrimination due to biased policies or biased application of policies – as compared to 71.4% percent of their peers. As a result, 57.6% of LGBTQ students felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation and 43.4% felt unsafe because of their gender identity. Students who experienced victimization at school were almost three times more likely to have skipped school because they felt unsafe or uncomfortable; to have demonstrated lower levels of academic achievement including lower GPAs; and to have had a lower self-esteem and higher levels of depression when compared to students who did not experience victimization related to their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. Similarly, the CDC reports that 60.4% of gay, lesbian, and bisexual students nationwide felt so sad or helpless in schools that they stopped participating in usual activities—ranging from abandoning extracurricular activities to falling behind in their classes.

LGBTQ students are at higher risk of experiencing disproportionate and discriminatory school discipline and being pushed out of our schools than non-LGBTQ peers.  Almost two thirds (62.8%) of LGBTQ students had experienced some form of discipline, whether that was detention, in-school or out-of-school suspension, or expulsion, compared to less than half (45.8%) of non-LGBTQ students. LGBTQ students of color are more significantly impacted by these practices, with 46.7% of Black/African American LGBTQ students, 44.1% of Hispanic/Latino LGBTQ students, and 47.3% of multiracial LGBTQ students facing discipline in 2013, compared to 36.3% of white LGBTQ students surveyed. Similarly, 47.8% of disabled LGBTQ students reported experiencing school discipline compared to 36.9% of students who did not report a disability. This phenomenon is a consequence of punitive responses to LGBTQ student experiences of harassment and assault, discriminatory school policies and practices, and a lack of access to supportive resources to help students mitigate identity-based conflict in a restorative fashion. This makes students more likely to come into contact with the juvenile justice system and more likely to miss days of school. For this reason, the Obama Administration’s guidance on “Rethinking School Discipline” has been an essential tool for helping schools mitigate the fear and anxiety that systemic discrimination instills in our youth.

In GLSEN’s decades of work on promoting safe and inclusive schools, we have learned what works to prevent these harmful outcomes—related to both victimization and harmful school discipline. Effective strategies to increase safety and respect for all students and staff include:

  1. Increasing mental health resources in schools, and ensuring that providers are prepared and willing to help all of the students that need their care. Providing adequate funding and professional development for quality competent mental health care and counseling within schools has the potential to decrease victimization and create a safer school climate. There are currently far too few mental health professionals available in our K-12 schools overall, and, for LGBTQ youth, encountering a psychologist or counselor unprepared or unwilling to support them because of personal belief is a potentially devastating threat.
  2. Providing professional development for education professionals on cultural competency and systems of positive behavioral interventions and supports.  By giving educators the tools that they need to communicate effectively with all students and to understand how best to support every child in their school through multi-tiered systems of support, we can build more positive relationships within our communities. Teachers and administrators should have access to training and resources on creating an affirming classroom for students with different racial and ethnic backgrounds, sexual orientations, gender identities, abilities, religions, and other important identity groups. To the extent they do not do this for all students, adults in school communities send a devastating message to at-risk youth that they are not valued, and their privileged peers are given the message that they are better than those other students – and have license to act accordingly.
  3. Creating anti-bullying and harassment intervention policies that explicitly require attention to bias-based victimization of students. Given our nation’s history of denying the equal dignity and equitable treatment of students protected by federal civil rights law, enumeration is a crucial element of policy to remind everyone that “all students” includes those students as well, and that special attention is required to the specific nature of the challenges that they face. Past USED guidance has held up enumerated, LGBTQ-inclusive legislative and policy language as a best practice in bullying prevention, and research has shown that students in states with such laws on the books are less likely than peers in other states to experience bias-based bullying and harassment at school.
  4. Ensuring that restorative justice practices are utilized in the classroom, and that discriminatory differential discipline practices are identified and eliminated from school systems. It is crucial that anti-bullying policies and other discipline practices are intentionally written with restorative justice practices in mind. Zero-tolerance policies do not get at the heart of harmful climates that lead to victimization, but rather perpetuate the school-to-prison pipeline and its disproportionate outcomes removing marginalized students from the classroom and placing them in the juvenile justice setting. When creating discipline practices, schools should employ graduated approaches that consider the seriousness of the offense in order to keep students in school whenever possible and reintegrate them into the regular classroom should they be briefly removed.  To this end, the Department of Education should maintain the “Rethinking School Discipline” policies, which serve as valuable guidance to school districts and schools on effective and equitable approaches.

We also know what interventions in the name of “school safety” will not work, and indeed would cause schools to be less safe.  We urge this Commission to avoid such policy initiatives that would have harmful consequences for LGBTQ and otherwise marginalized students. Enacting zero-tolerance policies for bullying or other offenses would not make our schools safer, but instead would effectively punish more heavily students who need additional resources. Advancing discipline practices without accounting for how they impact LGBTQ students, disabled students, students of color, or otherwise marginalized youth would not make any students safer. Further, introducing weapons in schools will not make school safer.  In order to establish safe and engaging learning environments, teachers need to focus on educating students and cultivating relationships with them, not worrying about gun security and safe weapons management. We strongly oppose any policy that would allow or encourage firearms in a classroom where students, educators, or administrators could experience harm.

Unfortunately, the last eighteen months also provide a stark lesson in the ways that federal action can directly instill fear, anxiety, and uncertainty in students’ daily lives. Last fall, UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access released a study of the experiences of public school teachers nationwide, and found a dramatic increase in student anxiety, stress, and incivility in during the second half of the 2016-17 school year. Teachers reported a pervasive sense of fear that was most acute for black and Latino, Muslim, immigrant, disabled, and LGBTQ youth. Federal actions, including the precipitous withdrawal of guidance on transgender students’ rights, the uncertainty surrounding possible immigration enforcement actions at schools, public statements calling this Department’s civil rights oversight commitment into question, and a pervasive tone of disrespect and denigration on the basis of personal bias or political belief, have taken a concrete toll on students’ sense of safety and belonging, both at school and, ultimately, as members of our national community.

Federal action matters, for good or for ill. We can and must do better by every single child in this country if we truly believe that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. The knowledge, the experience, and the proven approaches are within our grasp if we choose to put children first.

This work is hard. But it is not rocket science. It requires time, funding, wide-ranging collaboration, and a fundamental willingness to acknowledge that we must address systemic and historical biases and discrimination in order to truly improve the lives of every single student in this country. Above all, it requires the U.S. Department of Education to play its crucial role as a civil rights agency, providing evidence-based guidance on best practice, effective oversight, and, when necessary, reparative and remedial enforcement to ensure that all schools serve all students. We know what to do. The question is if we have the will to do it.

In summation, to aid in establishing safe and inclusive schools, we recommend that the Commission pursue advancing policies and guidance that foster a positive and affirmative school climate for all students, especially for those, like LGBTQ students, who are most at risk for victimization, exclusion, and harassment. These specific recommendations include policies that prioritize professional development around mental health and cultural competence, allocating resources to ensure educators have access to training on conflict intervention, policies designed to mitigate the impacts of harassment and bullying on marginalized students, and creating intentional school discipline policies that are focused on altering questionable behavior instead of punishment. We also strongly urge the Department of Education to maintain the “Rethinking School Discipline” policies in order to combat the impacts of harsh and exclusionary school discipline practices on LGBTQ students, students with disabilities, students of color, and students with identities that span more than one of these identity groups.




[i] Greytak, E.A., Kosciw, J.G., Villenas, C. & Giga, N.M. (2016). From Teasing to Torment: School Climate Revisited, A Survey of U.S. Secondary School Students and Teachers. New York: GLSEN

[ii] Kosciw, J. G., Greytak, E. A., Giga, N. M., Villenas, C. & Danischewski, D. J. (2016). The 2015 National School Climate Survey: The experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer youth in our nation’s schools. New York: GLSEN.

[iii] Kosciw, J.G., et. al. (2016). The 2015 National School Climate Survey. GLSEN.

[iv] Frieden, T.R., Jaffe, H.W., Cono, J., et. al (2016). Sexual Identity, Sex of Sexual Contacts, and Health-Related Behaviors Among Students in Grades 9–12 — United States and Selected Sites, 2015. Washington: CDC.

[v] Greytak, et. al. (2016). From Teasing to Torment: School Climate Revisited. GLSEN.

[vi] GLSEN (2016). Educational exclusion: Drop out, push out, and school-to-prison pipeline among LGBTQ youth. New York: GLSEN.

 

About GLSEN

GLSEN works to create safe and inclusive schools for all. We envision a world in which every child learns to respect and accept all people, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, and/or expression. Each year, GLSEN programs and resources reach millions of students and educators in K-12 schools across the United States, and our network of 39 community-led chapters in 26 states brings GLSEN’s expertise to local communities. GLSEN's progress and impact have won support for inclusive schools at all levels of education in the United States and sparked an international movement to ensure equality for LGBTQ students and respect for all in schools. For more information on GLSEN’s policy advocacy, student leadership initiatives, public education, research, and educator training programs, please visit www.glsen.org.