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  • Writer's pictureLeslie A. Farber

Anti-LGBT Harassment in Schools: What Are Your Rights?

Updated: Jul 3, 2019

Within the last several years, increased reports of suicides and suicide attempts by gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) teenagers have brought to light the harassment these individuals often face in silence and shame at the very places entrusted with their protection: their schools.

Studies have reported that gay and lesbian teenagers are 2 to 6 times more likely to attempt suicide than heterosexual youth. Thanks in part to efforts from organizations such as the It Gets Better project, GLSEN, Garden State Equality in New Jersey, as well as many successful lawsuits by the ACLU and Lambda Legal, the current LGBT-friendly nationwide atmosphere has forced schools into taking a stand against harassment and bullying - but still, some institutions fail to act upon or acknowledge the aggressions directed at LGBT students. Avoidance of the issue on the part of the school plus students who are not sure of their rights, means that school bullying continues to be a huge issue for many LGBT youth.

If you believe that you, your child, or any student you know has been the victim of such gender- or sexuality-based harassment at schools, it is important to understand what constitutes harassment, the protection afforded to LGBT students by current laws, and what your rights are.

Types of Harassment

Aggressive behavior or harassment on the part of peers or school staff that focuses in any manner on a student's sexual and/or gender identity falls into the category of anti-gay, or anti-LGBT, harassment. Bullying can take many forms: threats of or actual physical harm, name-calling, social exclusion, and cyber-bullying (harassment through text messages or online, anonymously or otherwise). An individual who becomes a victim of harassment based on this definition does NOT need to identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or questioning in order for the harassment to be categorized as such.

While physical harassment of LGBT students is often quick to make headlines, insidious verbal bullying that involves negative language and is sexual in nature is the most common form of anti-gay bullying and harassment. Surprisingly, up to ¾ of all students who are bullied with remarks about sexual orientation do not identify as LGBT. This is one of many reasons why anti-gay harassment in schools extends far beyond affecting a perceived minority population. Verbal bullying can range from outright name-calling to repeated comments related to sexuality or gender, which make the victim feel singled-out and uncomfortable.

Anti-LGBT Cyber-bullying has become a topic of increased concern amongst educators after several highly-visible incidents, such the suicide of gay college student Tyler Clementi following online harassment, became the focus of national efforts to end LGBT hate crimes. Online name-calling, threats, intimidation, or shaming on the basis of sexual or gender orientation are now being taken as seriously by institutions as that which occurs offline.

Deliberate social exclusion can occur as a primary means or harassment, or as a by-product of other types of anti-gay bullying, and districts have been forced to pay thousands in damages to students who have experienced harassment-based exclusion to such an extent that they have dropped out of or changed schools.

What are your rights?

Allowing anti-gay abuse and harassment to persist can be costly for schools. In a case settled in 2004 , the school district of Morgan Hill, California paid $1.1 million to victims of harassment, after it was ruled that the district “repeatedly ignored or minimized many reports by the students that they were being abused by others who thought they were gay.” Along with restitutions, the district also implemented comprehensive training programs to combat anti-LGBT harassment.

This case established a constitutional obligation on the part of all schools to provide comprehensive steps towards preventing anti-gay harassment, providing a safe means for LGBT students to report it, and dealing with it in an appropriate and fair manner once reported.

As a preemptive action aimed to both protect students and avoid lawsuits, many schools have begun providing anti-bullying training for educators and other school staff, along with programs aimed at educating students. If you or your child are the victim of anti-gay bullying, your school should be fully equipped to help end harassment in a safe, confidential, and supportive manner.

If you are the parent of a student who has faced anti-LGBT discrimination or harassment either at or outside of their school, the Law Office of Leslie Farber invite you to contact us today to act as a legal voice for your child. As a legal voice for the LGBT community for many years, as well as a member of the Board of Trustees of the LGBT Rights Section of the NJ State Bar Association, your case will be in compassionate, expert hands.

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