Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released the results of the 2014 School Health Policies and Practices Study (SHPPS). The SHPPS provides nationally representative data about schools’ efforts to address the health of K-12 students, including lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) students.
Unfortunately, the results are not uplifting. Although the SHPPS finds that the portion of schools providing specific health services for LGB students has significantly increased since 2000, even now only about a third (35%) of U.S. high schools provided these LGB-specific services.
The study also found that only 17% of high school health service coordinators received professional development (PD) about LGB student health, and that only 38% of high schools had Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs). Through our research, GLSEN has found that professional development works and that both supportive educators and GSAs are critical to creating a positive school climate for all students, including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth.
Luckily, GLSEN has resources to provide professional development and to help GSAs get started. Educators and students can use these resources to make change in their schools. Especially when implemented alongside LGBT-inclusive policies and curricula, professional development and GSAs have a positive impact on school climate.
The SHPPS findings on school’s efforts are not surprising given what we learned from LGBT students themselves. Most LGBT students are not provided with a health education that addresses their needs – less than 5% report being taught any positive information about LGBT people or topics in their health classes.
In 1999, with our initial National School Climate Survey, GLSEN gathered the first set of national data on the school experiences of LGBT youth. Over 15 years later, there is still little information on schools’ efforts to address the educational and health disparities for these youth. That’s why we applaud the CDC for their 2014 inclusion of LGB student health and GSAs in the SHPSS. It is the first time they included questions about GSAs, which is monumental.
Unfortunately, the 2014 SHPSS failed to include questions about health services for transgender youth, who are disproportionately victimized by harassment and are at especially high risk for substance use and other mental health issues. The inclusion of LGB students and GSAs in the SHPSS is a great start, but we need data on how schools are (or are not) addressing the health of transgender youth, too.
GLSEN recently worked with the U.S. Department of Education to add more specific questions about anti-transgender bias in schools to their School Survey on Crime and Safety. We hope that the CDC will follow suit by including questions about health services for transgender students in future installments of the SHPSS.
Truly LGBT-inclusive data is needed to understand school climate for LGBT youth and identify areas for improvement. But until then, this new SHPSS data does demonstrate the need for policies, training, and resources on LGB-inclusive health services and continued support of GSAs. Students, educators, policymakers, and community members can use these findings to advocate for change in their local schools and make schools healthy environments for all students.
Emily Greytak, PhD is the Director of Research at GLSEN.