Anti-LGBTQ bullying a daily problem in NJ schools, survey shows
In the face of one of the toughest bullying laws nationwide, gay, bisexual and transgender students in New Jersey middle schools and high schools still experience harassment or bullying between the first and final bell.
The vast majority regularly heard anti-LGBTQ remarks, and most experienced anti-LGBTQ victimization at school, according to the 2017 National School Climate Survey released by GLSEN, a New York-based advocacy group devoted to ensuring a bullying- and harassment-free school environment for this community.
In the survey, many respondents also reported discriminatory policies or practices at their school.
"The statistics are not surprising because I get calls as the Safe Schools Coordinator on a daily basis," said Ashley Chiappano with Garden State Equality.
Among the findings: 8-9 percent of LGBTQ students were physically assaulted based on their sexual orientation or gender; verbal harassment was a reality for up to 60 percent of respondents; and 79 percent of respondents regularly heard homophobic remarks (14 percent heard these remarks made regularly by school staff).
"Really what this report shows is a lack of change in school climate," Chiappano said. "I think the disconnect is — you've done the HIB (harassment, intimidation, bullying) report, and you've followed through with whatever the incident was. But making sure that the school is following up with changing the climate for the entire student body, so this doesn't continue, is another thing."
In the GLSEN report, 48 percent of transgender students reported they were unable to use the school restroom aligned with their gender. Thirty-nine percent were prevented in school from using their chosen name or pronouns. One-fifth of LGBTQ students were disciplined for public displays of affection, such as kissing, that did not result in similar action for non-LGBTQ students.
Responding to the report, state education department spokeswoman Carmen Cusido said school districts must adopt and adhere to policies that ensure schools remain secure and inclusive environments.
This year, she said, the DOE issued Transgender Guidance to schools, which was developed in cooperation with LGBTQ advocacy groups and other stakeholders. The Department also established the School Climate Transformation Project.
"While New Jersey has been a leader in the nation in enacting strong anti-bullying laws, the Department of Education is continually striving to improve the culture and climate in all schools," Cusido said.
"I was certainly disappointed and disheartened by the statistics," said Valerie Vainieri Huttle, a prime sponsor of New Jersey's anti-bullying law for schools. "I think that more needs to be done, unfortunately."
New Jersey's anti-bullying bill of rights, signed in 2011 by then-Gov. Chris Christie, put a statewide system in place for investigating and handling reports of harassment, intimidation or bullying. The law was the first in the nation to provide for an anti-bullying coordinator in every district, and requires schools to notify the parents of all students involved in an incident. It also applies to to extracurricular school-related settings.
During the 2016-2017 school year, the most recent year for which data is available, New Jersey schools reported more than 6,400 HIB incidents. But that likely represents just a fraction of the true problem.
Most victims — 51 percent — never reported the incident to school staff, according to the survey. Among those who did make a report, 33 percent said it resulted in effective staff intervention.
"Even though it's been eight years, I would hope that we are getting better," Vainieri Huttle said.
New Jersey's findings are less drastic than those in other states. To keep the momentum going, Vainieri Huttle is sponsoring legislation requiring school instruction that accurately portrays the political, economic and social contributions of gay, bisexual and transgender people, as well as individuals with disabilities.
The law, which would take effect in the 2020-2021 school year, passed both legislative houses and awaits action by Gov. Phil Murphy.