CHARLOTTE — For the first time, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has definitive data on the rate of anti-LGBT bullying and harassment in local schools. The new data, culled from the 2011 Youth Risk Behavior Survey and released last week, will be used to inform how policies are written and resources implemented across the district.
The Youth Risk Behavior Survey is organized federally by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and administered every two years. CMS’ 2011 survey included responses from 1,555 high school students and 1,591 middle school students.
Both versions of the survey included a new question asking students if they had ever been subjected to teasing or name-calling because someone thought they were gay, lesbian or bisexual.
In total, 16.4 percent of middle school students said they had been a victim of anti-gay bullying. Middle school boys reported higher incidents of bullying than girls. White and Hispanic or latino students were more likely to report anti-gay bullying than black students.
CMS’ 2011 Youth Risk Behavior Survey asked students if they had ever been a victim of teasing or name-calling because someone thought they were gay, lesbian or bisexual.
6th grade: 17.2%
7th grade: 18.4%
8th grade: 13.6%
9th grade: 15.6%
10th grade: 10.3%
11th grade: 10.8%
12th grade: 8.8%
Harassment was not as likely in high schools, where 11.9 percent of all students reported anti-gay harassment. As in the middle school responses, white and Hispanic or latino students reported higher rates. High school boys, however, were less likely to report harassment than high school girls. Anti-gay bullying was highest among ninth graders.
Nancy Langenfeld, coordinated school health specialist for CMS, said the added question on anti-gay bullying was new ground. The district says it is the only school system in the state asking the question.
“We tend to do something new and different every year [the survey is administered],” she said. “This was something some people had wanted us to get. We also worked with the state in order to try to keep our survey as close to the state’s as much as possible so we can compare how youth in Mecklenburg County compare to youth at the state and national level.”
The questions on anti-LGB bullying do not appear as standard questions in state or national surveys. CMS will be able to compare their results to other districts or states who choose to use the optional questions in their versions.
The added question for the 2011 surveys yields new data but also creates a new gap in harassment reporting. Rates of anti-LGB bullying can now be utilized by school officials, but no data on how bullying affects students who actually self-identify as LGBT can be known until demographic questions on sexual orientation or gender identity are asked.
Langenfeld said those questions are being considered for the 2013 survey and were discussed at a recent state meeting with several stakeholders.
“We talked about two additional questions related to LGBTQ youth,” Langenfeld said.
The two additional questions would ask students how they identify their sexual orientation and gender expression. Such questions would allow CMS to compare rates of bullying and harassment between students who self-identify as LGBT and those who are heterosexual or perceived to be LGBT.
Emily Graytak, Ph.D., a senior research associate at the national Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), said specific questions on anti-LGBT bullying and self-identification are important tools for schools desiring to effectively address harassment.
“It is important to get a sense of what are the different types of bullying and bias that exist in schools in order to craft intervention and prevention strategies and to know which students are most at risk for bullying and harassment,” she said.
Without the specific LGBT identification questions, schools lose the ability to monitor not only harassment but other health disparities.
“By not asking LGBT status…you’re not able to assess any other disparities that we know from other research most likely exists in every community,” Greytak said. “It’s not just bullying but also other risk behavior like drug and alcohol use and suicidal thoughts. If you ask about sexual orientation or gender identity, you can have a lot more information beyond bullying.”
Charlotte schools’ decision to explore the experiences of LGBT youth are noteworthy, Greytak said.
“I would applaud the district for adding that question,” she said. “I think that’s wonderful particularly if other districts in their area haven’t yet.”
However, survey questions alone won’t solve bullying problems. Greytak said GLSEN advocates an integrated approach to school health and bullying prevention.
“Programs that do not address the root reasons behind bullying are not addressing prejudice and bias,” she said. “Those types of programs are ineffective.”
Officials at CMS say their prevention strategies are increasingly taking anti-LGBT bullying and harassment into consideration.
Debra Kaclik, CMS’ director of arts, health, physical education and pre-K curriculum support programs, said CMS will soon unveil a “Making It Better” program modeled after Dan Savage’s signature “It Gets Better” project.
“We held an Engage Summit last year and brought teams of students and staff together to spearhead an initiative called Making It Better,” she said. “We’ll have a website up soon along with videos and documentaries from students themselves about their roadmaps on what they want to change.”
A second Engage Summit is planned for this year. Kaclik said CMS wants to stress community involvement and hopes to work with a variety of non-profit organizations and community partners.
“The school is a representation of the community itself,” Kaclik said. “We feel community involvement is an integral component to encompassing a global perspective on caring and diversity.”
CMS is also stressing parent involvement. This February, the district’s “Parent University” included a session on LGBT youth and the issues they face.
CMS’ efforts to address anti-LGBT bullying were highlighted last April when Northwest School of the Arts hosted the head of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division and a Charlotte-area U.S. attorney. There, U.S. Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez and openly lesbian U.S. Attorney for the Western District of North Carolina Anne Tompkins discussed diversity and school safety before showing the Justice Department Civil Rights Division’s “It Gets Better” video.
John Concelman, CMS’ director of character education and development and bullying prevention, said CMS’ partnership with Perez and Tompkins put a spotlight on safety concerns for LGBT youth.
“We know they are vulnerable targets in the schools as potential victims of bullying and harassment,” he said. “Our job is to make sure every student feels safe and cared for in that environment.”
Concelman’s yearly trainings for school staff prior to each school year include information on LGBT students.
“We do include a focus specifically targeting LGBT youth and how we can establish a safe environment in schools,” he said.
Concelman also said CMS supports the creation of gay-straight alliances or other student groups for LGBT young people. Several high schools in the district already have similar groups where students can meet to discuss their experiences and organize projects to increase awareness and bullying prevention.
Langenfeld said she hopes the combined efforts of the biannual risk behavior survey and CMS’ diversity initiatives increase safety in local schools by highlighting the available resources to those in need.
“We do this survey to establish policies and provide funding and resources, to be aware and educate people,” she said. “We want our youth in the community and for parents and staff to know that there are resources out there and that if you have questions or concerns or need assistance you know where to go.”
Langenfeld encourages parents to talk with their children openly and honestly about the issues they are facing at school. She said more communication between students, parents and school staff leads to more support both at home and in the classroom.