The problem of antigay bullying is widespread even in the early years of elementary school, according to an extensive national survey conducted by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network and released today.
The survey asked more than 1,000 students and 1,000 teachers about what they see in schools. And while 26% of both groups reported hearing homophobic remarks such as "fag" or "lesbo," the percentage almost doubled for "that's so gay" or "you're so gay." Some 49% of teachers said they'd heard students frequently use "gay" as an insult.
Of the kids who are getting called names, 23% are boys who often act or look "too much like a girl" or vice versa, according to teachers.
GLSEN executive director Eliza Byard warns that bullying "can affect students' educational outcomes and personal development at every grade level." And 47% of teachers agreed that bullying in some form was a very or somewhat serious problem at their schools.
The problem can ultimately manifest in one of the worst possible ways — suicide. The parents of Jeffrey Fehr said their son had been bullied starting in the third grade, and they ultimately blamed a lifetime of taunts for his suicide on New Year's Day at the age of 18. Reports of young people killing themselves haven't stopped despite successful public awareness campaigns like It Gets Better or constant support from the Trevor Project's lifeline, which can be reached at (866) 488-7386.
But the everyday reality of being bullied get less attention.
Bullying victims were less likely to say they got good grades, with a rate of 57% versus 71% for the rest of students. They were less likely to say they get along with their parents. And just 33% of bullied students said they have plenty of friends versus 57% for others.
The bottom line is that bullied children have an unhappy life at school, with just 34% reporting being happy at school versus 69% for others. A third went so far as to say they are afraid to go to school because they don't feel safe.
Teachers are often criticized for letting harassment continue in classrooms and hallways. But 66% of teachers report intervening when they hear "gay" used as an insult, and more than 60% said they jump in when students are attacked for appearing too feminine or masculine.
More than 80% of teachers said they'd already been trained in combating bullying.
One of the real problems at play appears to be a lack of discussion about gay and lesbian people. A quarter of teachers said they would feel uncomfortable answering a student's question about LGBT people. Fewer than half said they'd be OK with it. The GLSEN report points out that the training they received probably omitted any discussion of gay and lesbian families, with just 23% of teachers saying they'd had any professional development instruction about LGBT families.
And while students said they had been taught not to bully and to respect those who are different, fewer than two in 10 students had heard anything about families with two moms or two dads.
The report concludes that when "students and families are respected and valued in elementary school" it would "lay the groundwork for safe and affirming middle and high schools."