Survey declares Idaho schools unsafe for LGBTQ kids, who often experience harassment

The vast majority of Idaho lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer teenagers who participated in a national survey say they regularly hear homophobic remarks at school.

Last month, education organization GLSEN released the state-by-state results of its 2017 “National School Climate Survey,” which is conducted every other year. LGBTQ youth in U.S. middle and high schools are surveyed about their school experiences. National data was released last October.

Of the Idaho youth surveyed, 84 percent reported regularly hearing homophobic remarks at school and 74 percent regularly heard negative remarks about transgender people. In comparison, 60 percent of students nationwide said they regularly heard homophobic remarks at school; 45 percent of students nationally reported hearing transphobic remarks regularly.

It’s unfortunate any group of students would feel unwelcome at school, an Idaho administrator said.

“I do think that’s unfortunate and it is a concern within the schools,” Twin Falls School District Superintendent Brady Dickinson said in January.

Nationwide, a total of 23,001 students participated in the GLSEN survey. But only 191 youth from Idaho were surveyed, from rural, suburban and urban schools. More than 90 percent of Idaho respondents attend public schools.

The Times-News asked gay-straight alliance student clubs at Twin Falls and Canyon Ridge high schools and a couple of Twin Falls residents affiliated with LGBTQ groups if any students were willing to speak about their experiences, but none responded.

The GLSEN survey — which began in 1999 — “is the only survey of its kind, documenting the experiences of LGBTQ youth in schools, including the extent of the challenges that they face and their access to the school-based resources that support their educational success and well-being,” GLSEN said in a Jan. 9 statement.

Survey results show “Idaho schools were not safe for most lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) middle and high school students,” according to the statement. “In addition, many LGBTQ students in Idaho did not have access to important school resources, such as an LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum, and were not protected by supportive and inclusive school policies.”

GLSEN concluded that “most LGBTQ students in Idaho experienced anti-LGBTQ victimization at school.” Seventy-one percent of respondents reported verbal harassment over their sexual orientation, while 38 percent reported physical harassment and 19 percent reported physical assault for the same reason.

Students also told GLSEN they were prevented from expressing PDA at school (42 percent), using locker rooms or bathrooms that align with their gender (35 percent), using their chosen name or pronouns (28 percent) or discussing LGBTQ issues in assignments (24 percent).

Nearly a quarter of Idaho students surveyed said their school administration was somewhat supportive of LGBTQ students, and 94 percent of students said they knew at least one supportive staff member.

The Twin Falls School District — and some other Idaho school districts — has already taken policy steps. In October 2015, the Twin Falls school board adopted a new gender identity and sexual orientation policy. It specifically includes sections about dress codes and restroom use.

“Students will be allowed to use the restroom and locker room that corresponds to the gender identity they consistently assert at school,” the policy states. But they’re not required to do so. And they have the option of using a private restroom if one is available.

The policy is based on guidelines the Idaho School Boards Association gave school districts. Across the Gem State, the vast majority of districts didn’t take action shortly after the policy recommendation was released.

Policy revisions are often driven by court cases or law changes, Dickinson said, adding he hasn’t heard of any other policy recommendations on the horizon regarding LGBTQ students.

Within the Twin Falls School District, Dickinson said, schools have tried to promote kindness and the importance of students being accepting of one another, regardless of differences. Educators want schools to be inclusive, safe and welcoming for all students, he said.

“Kids are kids, so you are going to have times when students say or do things that are maybe not as accepting,” he said, but added it’s the job of educators to address those issues and educate students on the proper way to interact.

If harassment or bullying occurs, “it’s our job as schools to make sure that’s not happening,” Dickinson said.

The national survey references students saying some teachers refuse to use specific pronouns. Dickinson said he hasn’t heard of that issue in Twin Falls schools, but it doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened. If the school district received a report of that, school officials would make sure the staff member’s action aligns with what’s required, he said.

GLSEN’s report recommended that Idaho schools implement inclusive policies, such as anti-bullying and anti-harassment initiatives; support gay-straight alliance clubs; educate school staff on LGBTQ student issues and offer access to “LGBTQ-inclusive curricular resources.”

The Twin Falls School District isn’t looking at providing additional supports specifically for LGBTQ students at this point, Dickinson said. Both Twin Falls and Canyon Ridge high schools have gay-straight alliance clubs.

Idaho Statesman reporter Nicole Blanchard contributed.

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