School leaders are charged with the duty to create a school climate that is safe, welcoming, positive, and protective of all, including LGBTQ students. For LGBTQ students to be fully included and affirmed in their schools, administrators need opportunities to learn about and recognize the need for a continuous process of interrupting the systematic exclusion and stigmatization of LGBTQ students in all arenas of school life: curriculum, social culture, policy, extracurricular activities, school ceremonies, and rituals (Payne & Smith, 2018). Few teacher preparation programs in the United States include LGBTQ issues as required coursework for future teachers (Macgillivray & Jennings, 2008), and no state requires LGBTQ multicultural competence to qualify for teacher certiﬁcation. Additionally, there is little research on in-service professional development (Towery, 2007) and even less on the efficacy of school-based interventions in support of LGBTQ students. Hansen (2007) reported that a review of the literature yielded no research studies exploring the effectiveness of staff professional development for improving the school climate for LGBTQ youth. Studies of schools with “progressive” stances toward gender-based, in-school harassment show that such schools provide more positive school climates for LGBTQ students. But without staff development, teacher responses to the school policies and understanding of their obligation to enforcement varies in accordance with personal history (Anagnostopoulos et al., 2009).
With little or no preparation during their pre-service programs (Athanases & Larrabee, 2003; Macgillivray & Jennings, 2008; Sherwin & Jennings, 2006) and with little opportunity for professional development (Payne & Smith, 2010a), one may conclude that educators’ inability to address homophobia and heterosexism effectively is closely tied to a lack of education. Further, teachers and staff are too often participants in the creation of a hostile environment for LGBTQ youth (Meyer, 2008; Payne, 2009), and they rarely interrupt homophobic language (Adelman & Woods, 2006; Anagnostopoulos et al., 2009; Mahan et al., 2006). Lack of adult intervention in student anti-LGBTQ remarks implies passive agreement with those remarks and is one of the most common ways that educators participate in maintaining a hostile school environment (Adelman & Woods, 2006; Macgillivray, 2000; van Wormer & McKinney, 2003). When teachers and administrators participate in setting an “anti-LGBTQ tone,” students generally assess the institutional risks in confronting prejudice as too high and fear retribution for speaking out on behalf of LGBTQ students (Adelman & Woods, 2006).
Teachers and school administrators have the legal, ethical, and moral duty to protect LGBTQ youth from peer victimization (Bacon, 2011). Furthermore, they must come to recognize that this work is critical to schools’ obligation to support the academic achievement of every child (Payne & Smith, 2018). Research suggests that in-service training on LGBTQ issues is associated with increased knowledge, more positive teacher attitudes towards LGBTQ students, and improved school climate (Kose, 2009; Szalacha, 2004). However, teachers report few opportunities offered through their schools or districts to gain competence in addressing these issues (Meyer, 2008).
Professional development must help administrators stop assuming all students and parents are straight simply because educators cannot physically observe their queerness (Payne & Smith, 2018). When school administrators can dismantle this assumption about their students and the families they serve, they are more able to understand LGBTQ students’ needs and experiences as relevant to their daily decision-making (Payne & Smith, 2018).
The lack of information on LGBTQ student policy has resulted in school leaders not knowing how to protect LGBTQ youth from peer victimization. Research has demonstrated that having supportive educators can improve the school experience for LGBT students (Bochenek & Brown, 2001; Russell et al., 2001). There are effective strategies, programs, and policies that can be implemented in schools to reduce the level of peer victimization experienced by LGBTQ youth. Though research has shown that many LGBTQ students are not protected from peer victimization because school leaders may not have the knowledge, skills, or experience to address issues related to LGBT students (Bacon, 2011). Teachers were lacking knowledge regarding the services young LGBTQ people could be referred to for support. Szalacha (2003) found that unless a student knew a particular teacher who was proactive on issues of tolerance and inclusivity, students were unaware of any professional development their teachers had, and teacher training alone did not produce a signiﬁcant effect on school climate.
In conclusion, at the most basic level, school administrators need tools and knowledge that will allow them to speak the words “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning” without discomfort and understand what these words mean and who they represent (Payne & Smith, 2018). Professional development for school administrators should frame LGBTQ youth as bringing value to the school community, not as risks to be managed or problems to be solved (Payne & Smith, 2018).
Corbin A. Robinson (email@example.com) is a doctoral candidate in educational leadership at Florida A&M University. Her dissertation is entitled “Principal Leadership and the Implementation of Gay Straight Alliances in Milwaukee Public Schools.”
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