For K-12 educators who attended NIU’s Oct. 26 professional development conference on “Bullying: How Schools Can Respond,” a quotation presented by keynote speakers Z Nicolazzo and Molly Holmes painted a difficult picture.
“The dominant narrative (of LGBTQ bullying) depends on an inaccurate premise,” Nicolazzo said, reading from a 2013 study by researchers Elizabethe Payne and Melissa Smith.
“It assumes schools to be neutral sites where all students have an equal opportunity to succeed and that barriers to success appear when individuals’ injurious behavior or attitudes create a ‘negative’ school climate where student safety and belonging are threatened.”
What’s more, the presenters said, the increasing visibility of trans* people in the United States is matched by a growing vulnerability, risk of harm and threat of harassment.
LGBTQ students are experiencing educational environments that are less than ideal. They continue to face a lack of acceptance. Their lives are not reflected or affirmed through school curricula – and they are aware of that deficit.
One recent study found that 22 percent of students reported hearing negative remarks about gender expression from other students often or very often; 25.5 percent of students heard school staff make negative remarks related to gender expression.
“School officials condone this cruel dynamic through inaction,” according to the 2001 “Hatred in the Hallways” report from the Human Rights Watch, “or in some cases because they, too, judge gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth to be underserving of respect.”
For example, ze said, the number of people younger than 18 who are identifying as gender-expansive is three to six times greater than the number of adults doing so. Meanwhile, gender-expansive youth are connecting online for kinship as well as exploration of gendered possibilities.
Encouragement is also available in the “trickle up” philosophy: If schools focus on their most vulnerable populations, the positive effects should “trickle up” and potentially impact all students.
Co-sponsored by the College of Education Office of External & Global Programs, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences External Programming and the University Center of Lake County, the conference covered a variety of topics on bullying.
Nicolazzo, an assistant professor in the Department of Counseling, Adult and Higher Education, and Holmes, director of NIU’s Gender and Sexuality Resource Center, spoke on “Expanding Our Approach to Gender-Based Bullying.”
Among their key messages was the necessity of “enumerated” non-discrimination policies at schools – policies that outline not only the rules of conduct and the penalties for violating them but also statements of values.
Students who attend schools with enumerated non-discrimination policies report that they hear fewer homophobic and racist remarks than those in schools with no – or generic – policies. They also are less likely to perceive bullying as a problem at their schools or to feel unsafe.
But Nicolazzo and Holmes made clear that schools that are striving to create effective places for learning must update their policies at least every two years and actively enforce them.
Otherwise, Nicolazzo said, the policies are merely “caution tape.” They tell people what not to do, ze said, but they don’t really stop people from doing what they purport to prohibit.
“Pinkwashing” creates another problem, ze added, when schools and other organizations market policies of gender-inclusiveness but fail to carry them out.
The duo provided several other critical ideas for conference participants to ponder.
- Educators must be diligent in the ongoing work of unlearning gender, specifically the how gender binary discourse structures school environments.
- Educators need to remember LGBTQ students have agency to name their own lives, experiences and identities.
- Educators need to seek and amplify counter-stories to LGBTQ deficit-based rhetoric and illogic.
- Educators should infuse notions of gender throughout their curriculum.
“If we stop at having a policy,” Nicolazzo said, “we aren’t going to change.”