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Who Promotes Relationships With Students And Staff Of The LGBTQI Community

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Many states and public K-12 school districts across the country have yet to implement nondiscrimination clauses based on sexual orientation (Human Rights Campaign, 2013). Members of the LGBTQI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex) sexual minority fear loss of their career within the profession of public education if open about their sexual orientation. Research to date has argued that the rationale of protecting children by allowing discrimination against sexual minority educators is unfounded and does nothing more than continue the spread of homophobia and intolerance (Human Rights Campaign, 2013). Educational settings should be places of learning that foster inclusion for educators and students, and not places where some are ostracized for being different. While great progress has been made in the legal circuit to curb discriminatory practices and to provide greater support for our educators, many will still be at risk of losing their jobs or being harassed unless more protection is offered to sexual minorities in K-12 education.  Furthermore, forcing sexual minority teachers to assume a false identify of heterosexuality deprives students who are LGBTQI of role models in the school setting (Human Rights Watch, 2016). The purpose of this study is to determine how a school leader impacts the ability to build and foster relationships with students and staff of the LGBTQI community.

Teacher expression on the subject of sexual orientation is a hotly contested topic that has led to many recent legal challenges in the United States (Meyer & Stader, 2007). Many LGBTQI individuals still face workplace discrimination, despite steadily increasing acceptance of same-gender relationships in the United States (Human Rights Campaign, 2013).

As of 2015, twenty-eight states lacked job protections based on sexual orientation (Movement Advancement Project, 2015). Research conducted by DeLeon and Brunner (2013) identified America’s public schools have been identified as particularly discriminatory environments for LGBTQI individuals. Some research even suggested that education may be the most homophobic profession in the United States, due to unfounded stereotypes about LGBTQI individuals’ relationships with children. As teaching involves working closely with children, individuals who hold discriminatory views have even argued that LGBTQI persons should be excluded from the profession entirely to mitigate the risk of sexual abuse.

The intent of this study is to explore whether, and how, school leaders build and foster relationships with students and staff of the LGBTQI community by practicing culturally proficient leadership. A qualitative research study was deemed appropriate and the questions framing this research are: (1) How do school leaders define culturally proficient leadership? (2) In what ways do school leaders believe they practice culturally proficient leadership? (3) In what ways do school leaders believe the culturally proficient leadership practices they identify enable them to build and foster relationships with students of the LGBTQI community? (4) In what ways do school leaders believe they foster culturally proficient practices among the faculty, staff, and student of the LGBTQI community at their schools? And (5) What additional factors do school leaders believe to be essential in the effort to facilitate educators’ supportiveness towards LGBTQI youth?

A review of the literature has prompted great attention to five areas: (1) safety in schools, (2) anti-bullying, (3) anti-discrimination policies, (4) discipline, and (5) gay-straight alliances.

Safety in Schools

Over the past decade the country has witnessed enormous growth in the interest of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI) students in school. In a 2014 study conducted by Kosciw, Greytak, Palmer, and Boesen, data found that more LGBTQI students than ever are indicating that their schools have anti-bullying policies that specifically protect them based on their sexual orientation and gender identity or expression.

That same study found that supportive personnel, critical to improving the overall school climate for LGBTQI youth and instrumental in advocating on behalf of individual LGBTQI students, have steadily become more prevalent over the past decade. Two years later, Allyn (2016) reported that educator practices in the classroom are also gradually changing as some educators move away from exclusionary, discipline-heavy policies and practices and begin to adopt approaches that focus on keeping students in school and engaged in learning.

Outside of school buildings, Bumiller (2011) argued that LGBTQI communities in the United States have won a number of victories over the past decade. Among other milestones, advocates have successfully fought to include sexual orientation and gender identity in federal hate crimes legislation, repeal of the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy that banned LGBTQI persons from serving in the US military, and prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in employment by the federal government and its contractors and subcontractors. The US Supreme Court has also extended the Constitutional right to marry to same-sex couples nationwide.

Yet, despite these recent gains, Kosciw and colleagues (2014) research also found that schools still remained unsafe for many LGBTQI students and may also be unwelcoming to LGBTQI students because of discrimination and a lack of affirming resources.  

Although there is little empirical research assessing the disparities between LGBTQI youth and non-LGBTQI youth regarding high school completion, Grant (2011) comments that literature has suggested that LGBTQI students are more likely to drop out of school, perhaps due to hostile school climates they may face, in addition to potential other challenges caused by discrimination and stigma. National data from the U.S. Department of Education indicates that fewer than 1% of general population of high school students believe they will not finish high school, compared to nearly 3.5% of LGBTQI students who thought that they might not finish high school. LGBTQI students’ who reported higher levels of victimization because of their sexual orientation or gender expression were more likely than other students to report that they did not plan to complete high school (National Center for Education Statistics, 2013). In addition, LGBTQI students with lower levels of self-esteem were also more likely to plan to drop out (Kosciw, 2013).

A research study completed by the organization Educational Exclusion (2016) stated that LGBTQI youth who reported higher than average levels of victimization based on their sexual orientation or gender expression experienced substantially higher levels of justice system contact. LGBTQI students who are truant because they feel unsafe in the school environment may be at greater risk for referral to law enforcement and the court system. (Snapp et al., 2014)

Research from the National School Climate Survey has found that certain subgroups of LGBTQI youth experience victimization at higher rates compared to other groups. For example, the 2014 survey conducted by Kosciw found that transgender students experience higher rates of harassment and assault that their cisgender (a person whose sense of personal identity and gender corresponds with their birth sex) peers.

The Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network conducted a study in 2012 which found that more than 40% of gender nonconforming elementary students do not feel safe in school. Another 35% of those students reported that they did not want to attend school because they feel afraid and unsafe. A study focusing on high school students reported that gender nonconforming students experience higher incidents of physical assaults and verbal harassment than their peers (Kosciw, 2012). More than half of those students reported having heard negative remarks about gender expression from teachers or other staff. Given the hostile climate faced by gender nonconforming students in general, Kosciw (2014) claims they may also be at higher risk of expulsion or dropping out of school.

Educational Exclusion (2016) additionally argued that transgender, gender queer, and students of other gender identities were more likely to report that they might not complete high school, as compared to cisgender LGBTQI students. LGBTQI cisgender students who were gender nonconforming were more likely to report that they did not plan to complete high school or that they were not sure if they would complete high school. LGBTQI youth who reported having a disability were less likely to say they planned to graduate from high school: 5.8% of students with a disability indicated that they may drop out of school, compared to 2.6% of students without a disability.

In a Human Rights Campaign survey of more than 10,000 youth conducted in 2012, a lack of family acceptance was the primary concern that LGBTQI youth identified as the most important problem in their lives.

Shifting focus on educators, the Movement Advancement Project (2016) claims that many teachers who are visibly out as LGBTQI or actively support LGBTQI students still worry that they will be passed over for promotions, demoted, or terminated as a result. Such concerns are not unfounded; most US states still lack laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in the workplace.

The Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Networks (GLSEN) findings are consistent with governmental and academic studies that consistently show that LGBTQI youth are at elevated risk of adverse mental health outcomes, including depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and suicidality (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2014). In 2016, the federal government’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey, sponsored by the US Department of Health and Human Services, asked for the first time nationally about student sexuality, and found the 8 percent of students who identified as lesbian, gay, or bisexual nationally experienced higher rates of depression and suicidality than their heterosexual peers. Data showed that an alarming 42.8 percent of lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth respondents had seriously considered suicide in the previous year, and 29.4 percent had attempted suicide, compared with 14.8 percent of heterosexual youth who had seriously considered suicide in the previous year and 6.4 percent of heterosexual youth who had attempted suicide.

A lack of support contributed to the prevalence of negative mental health outcomes; in one study by Hatzenhueler (2011) it was found that lesbian, gay, and bisexual students in environments with fewer supports like gay-straight alliances, inclusive anti-bullying policies, and inclusive non-discrimination policies were 20 percent more likely to attempt suicide than those in more supportive environments. A study by Meyer (2003) also suggested that “[a] higher risk for suicide ideation and attempts among LGBTQI groups seems to start at least as early as high school” (p. 674).

For LGBTQI youth, isolation and exclusion can be as detrimental as bullying and can aggregate over time to create an unmistakably hostile environment. In recent years, psychologists have drawn attention to these types of incidents—or ‘micro aggressions’—and the way they collectively function to adversely affect development and health (Nadal, 2013). Meyer (2015) added to this research by noting that when students experience stigmatization, hostility, and rejection over years of school, the cumulative effect can be devastating and long-lasting. Psychological research has suggested that “circumstances in the environment, especially related to stigma and prejudice, may bring about stressors that LGBTQI people experience their entire lives” (p. 209).

As a result of bullying, exclusion, and isolation, many LGBTQI youth are at increased risk of adverse mental health outcomes. A study by the Human Rights Watch (2016) showed that LGBTQI youth experience higher incidences of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and suicidality than their heterosexual, cisgender peers.

Herman (2013) declared that restricting access to certain facilities negatively affects the physical and mental health of transgender youth. For example, research has indicated that avoiding bathroom use for extended periods of time is linked to dehydration, urinary tract infections, and kidney problems. The American Psychiatric Association (2013) asserts that in addition to physical health issues, students underscored the mental health repercussions of denial to access to the spaces their peers used because they were transgender, including anxiety and feelings of gender dysphoria. The World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH, 2011) found that a number of medical authorities have emphasized that social transition, including access to bathrooms consistent with one’s gender identity, is among the most important aspects of transition, and is crucial to transgender students’ health and well-being.

Educators who employ culturally responsive teaching and are aware of the needs of their students may help their students feel more engaged, increasing their academic achievement, and educational aspirations and attainment (Hamilton, 2014). Specifically, when educators incorporate LGBTQI people and topics into their teaching, LGBTQI students are more likely to be engaged in school—prior research has demonstrated that they are less likely to skip school and feel more connected to their school community. In addition, schools that foster a supportive environment convey that they success of all students is important and help to keep students in school. Additionally, studies have shown that administrators can be instrumental in ensuring that the application of policies is fair and non-punitive, and by supporting teachers and students to be respectful of all students (Morgan et al., 2014).


Kim (2013) remarks that while previous presidential administrations have taken strides to collect better data on the educational experiences of LGBTQI youth, these efforts have been largely limited to anti-LGBTQI bullying. Losen et al. (2014) contended that additional and more comprehensive training for all school personnel will help equip them to address bullying and other incidents in ways that do not require exclusionary discipline—approaches that potentially require more time, skill, and attention, but ultimately may promote the best outcomes for the largest number of students. Furthermore, currently very few educators receive any training on addressing LGBTQI student issues or on anti-LGBTQI bullying.

Pervasive bullying and harassment of LGBTQI youth has long been a problem in US schools. In 2001, Human Rights Watch researchers documented widespread physical abuse and sexual harassment of LGBTQI youth, and noted that “[n]early every one of the 140 youth we interviewed described incidents of verbal or other nonphysical harassment in school because of their own or other students’ perceived sexual orientation” (p. 28).

Fifteen years later, the Human Rights Campaign (2016) still urged that bullying, harassment, and exclusions remain serious problems for LGBTQI youth across the US, even as their peers generally become more supportive as a group. The Human Rights Campaign has found that although 75 percent of LGBTQI youth say most of their peers do not have a problem with their LGBTQI identity, LGBTQI youth are still more than twice as likely as non-LGBTQI youth to be physically attacked at school, twice as likely to be verbally harassed at school, and twice as likely to be excluded by their peers.

In 2015, the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, administered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found that 34.2 percent of lesbian, gay, and bisexual respondents in the US reported that they have experienced bullying on school property, and that lesbian, gay, and bisexual respondents were twice as likely as heterosexual youth to be threatened or injured with a weapon on school property. Baumann (2015) asserts that the impacts of bullying on youth can be severe, and legislatures across the US have recognized that bullying is a serious and widespread problem that merits intervention.

Research by Hatzenbuehler & Keyes (2013) indicated that laws and policies that enumerate sexual orientation and gender identity as protected grounds are more effective than those that merely provide a general admonition against bullying. Without express protections for sexual orientation and gender identity that are clearly conveyed to students and staff, bullying and harassment against LGBTQI students frequently goes unchecked.

The American Psychiatric Association (2013) assessed that experiencing targeted verbal harassment had negative effects on student mental health. In addition to isolation, anxiety, and depression, harassment can exacerbate gender dysphoria, a condition where there is “a marked difference between the individual’s expressed/experienced gender and the gender others would assign him or her that causes clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning” (p. 12).

UNICEF (2014) has similarly urged states to take steps to curb anti-LGBTQI bullying, noting “robust evidence to suggest that LGBTQI children and youth exposed to discrimination are more likely to consider or attempt suicide than their peers.” Human Rights Watch (2016) agreed by adding that bullying and harassment can also undermine a child’s right to education.

Payne and Smith (2012) claimed that the anti-bullying paradigm pays too much attention to behavior and attitudes, and places the problem of bullying on those individuals involved rather than the culture. They recommended that in order to make a change in the culture, a campus must move from defining the problem by individual-to-individual, or group-to-group, and focus on school culture. Robinson and Espelage (2012) concluded that in addition to bullying-prevention programs, “there are a number of ways schools could try to foster a more inclusive and supportive learning environment for LGBTQI youth” (p. 316). Heck et al. (2016) highlight the importance of targeted efforts to reduce school-based violence among LGBTQI youth throughout their educational experience. More than 9,000 school districts’ anti-bullying policies reviewed in a 2016 study found that nearly 43% of districts with an anti-bullying policy included specific protections for students based upon their sexual orientation; where only 14% of these same policies included protections on the basis of gender identify or expression. Further review of the results of this study revealed that LGBTQI students in districts with anti-bullying policies that were inclusive of sexual orientation as well as gender identity and gender expression were less likely to feel unsafe, or to experience victimization, and to experience social aggression at school, relative to peers in districts that had only generic anti-bullying policies or no policy. Findings such as these clearly support the need for anti-bullying policies that protect students on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Anti-Discrimination Policies

Public educators cannot be seen as advocating for or against a particular political, social, or religious point of view, but must remain ‘neutral’ (Biegel, 2010). Furthermore, public educators cannot speak in a manner that would seem to violate state or board policy, and that includes speaking against unconstitutional measures which can ban all positive mentions of LGBTQI identity and people. This results in many LGBTQI public educators feeling compelled to remain silent regarding their own identify (Adelman & Lugg, 2012). As Biegel (2010) noted, “Public school educators may have an emerging right to be out under the law, but in day-to-day educational practice—and particularly in certain communities—that right may be severely curtailed” (p. 49).

Emerging research by Hunt and Moodie-Mills (2010) suggested that the same types of harsh forms of discipline that contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline (STPP), may be applied disproportionately to LGBTQI youth, thus depriving this population of educational opportunities. For example, one study found that sexual minority youth face higher rates of school suspension and involvement in the juvenile justice system compared with heterosexual youth even for similar infractions. Although most scholars estimate LGBTQI youth to comprise 5 to 7 percent of the general youth population, recent research studied by Snapp, Hoenig, Fields, and Russell (2015), found LGBTQI youth constitute 15 percent of youth housed in the juvenile justice system.

Kang-Brown et al. (2013) argued that the use of harsh and exclusionary discipline, such as zero tolerance policies, has proliferated over the previous several decades for both serious infractions as well as minor violations of school policies. Initially framed as vital to protecting teachers and students, these disciplinary policies are now widely regarded as being over-employed in removing students from the traditional school environment.

Growing awareness of the soaring use of exclusionary school discipline approaches in the U.S. has included some attention to their effect on LGBTQI youth. Findings from a Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) study of a national representative sample of 1,367 middle and high school students indicated that LGBTQI students were far more likely to have experienced any type of school discipline (2014).

Recent research of LGBTQI youth in the STPP analyzed by Kosciw et al. (2014) has suggested that LGBTQ youth are sometimes punished even when they are the victims in bullying incidents, including as a result of defensive violence. Prior research indicated that 1 in 10 LGBTQI students who reported incidents of victimization to school authorities say they themselves received discipline as a result of reporting.

A research study sponsored by Educational Exclusion (2016) found that LGBTQI youth who reported higher than average levels of victimization based on their sexual orientation experienced substantially higher levels of all types of discipline examined.

Based on previous research asking LGBTQI students to describe ways in which they had been discriminated against at school, in the 2013 National School Climate Survey, LGBTQI students were asked if they had experienced any of the most common discriminatory policies and practices at school. More than half of the LGBTQI students reported that they have experienced some type of LGBTQI-related discrimination at school. The same study found that LGBTQI youth who had experienced discriminatory policies and practices at school did experience higher rates of school discipline.

Weiss (2013) urged that restricting students’ gender expression via strict dress codes is a violation of gender protections under Title IX of the federal Educational Amendments of 1972 which prohibits discrimination in education on the basis of sex. In addition, as of 2014, 14 states and Washington, DC had non-discrimination laws protecting students on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression.

The American Civil Liberties Union (2009) has fought that restrictions on students’ clothing supportive of LGBTQI issues may violate the First Amendment when there is no evidence that such clothing or support disrupts the learning environment.  

Greytak (2014) contributed that prohibiting LGBTQI students from attending school functions or from activities from other students violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution which guarantee freedom of expression and equal protection to all citizens, respectively.

The Associated Press (2014) has reported that transgender students in several states have won lawsuits challenging schools’ efforts to restrict their access to bathrooms.

School policies and practices that discriminate against LGBTQI students may contribute to a school setting that feels unwelcoming and hostile for many students, leading some students to drop out entirely. And, research has shown that experiencing discrimination was related to missing more days of school (Educational Exclusion, 2016). Similar to findings related to school discipline, LGBTQI youth who had experienced discriminatory policies and practices at school were more likely to have been involved with the criminal or juvenile justice systems as a result of school-related infractions.

Research by Estrada and Marksamer (2006) concluded that LGBTQI youth are thought to be overrepresented in the homeless population and among the group home and foster care system. Once there, LGBTQI youth face unfair treatment in the child welfare system.

The Student Nondiscrimination Act (SNDA) would prohibit discrimination in schools on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identify, in addition to protections that currently exist for students, such as race, religion, and disability (2018). Additionally, the Safe School Improvement Act (SSIA) would require states to pass anti-bullying policies that prohibit harassment on the bases of sexual orientation and gender identity and help ensure that schools have appropriate mechanisms for dealing with such harassment (2015). Several organizations have called on Congress to include protections for LGBTQI youth as it considers reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA), which has been due for reauthorization since 2007 (Hunt & Moodie-Mills, 2012).

Federal education law protects students from sex discrimination under Title IX (Educational Exclusion, 2016). Furthermore, when students’ rights are violated, schools should provide notification to students and families about their rights and the mechanisms for filing complaints. In 2016, the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education jointly released specific guidance to schools and districts clearly stating that discrimination based on transgender status is in violation of Title IX and detailing school’s specific responsibilities to ensure transgender students’ rights are protected (Lhamon & Gupta, 2016).

In the late 1980s, lawmakers began amending sexuality education laws and inserting provisions that many educators read as prohibiting or restricting discussions of homosexuality in schools. Such laws have been declared as discriminatory and nonsexual, yet they still exist in eight US states. Volsky (2012) has added that attempts to repeal them have proven unsuccessful.

A recent study by the National Center for Transgender Equality (2016) contributed that anxieties about LGBTQI youth in schools reemerged when lawmakers in at least 18 states sought to restrict transgender students’ access to bathrooms, locker rooms, and other facilities consistent with their gender identity.

One of the most overt campaigns to keep LGBTQI topics out of schools was the Briggs Initiative, a ballot measure in California in 1978 that would have prohibited “the advocating, soliciting, imposing, encouraging or promoting of private or public homosexual activity directed at, or likely to come to the attention of, school children and employees (California Proposition 6, 1978).

Although the Briggs initiative was defeated, laws prohibiting the promotion of homosexuality or restricting discussions of homosexuality in schools were enacted by state legislatures in the late 1980s and 1990s. Laws that restrict classroom instruction in this manner—or ‘no promo homo’ laws—remain in the books in Alabama, Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, and Utah.

In 2014, GLSEN found that discrimination and victimization of youth based on their sexual orientation or gender identity correlated with lower levels of self-esteem, high levels of depression, and increased absenteeism from school.

Burdge et al. (2007) argued that the discrimination and victimization that LGBTQI youth face in schools is often exacerbated when they have intersectional identities based on race, ethnicity, sex, disability, and other characteristics. LGBTQI youth of color, for example, often report bullying based on race and ethnicity, closer surveillance by school personnel, and harsher disciplinary measures.

Discrimination in school environments also adversely affects the academic achievement of LGBTQI youth. A recent survey from GLSEN (2015) found that LGBTQI youth who faced discrimination in school had lower GPAs and were more than three times more likely to miss school in the past month than those who did not. Additionally, LGBTQI youth who experience high levels of victimization because of their sexual orientation or gender identity were twice as likely as those who experienced lower levels of victimization to say they did not plan to go on to post-secondary education.

In 2016, the Movement Advancement Project prompted that in 12 states and the District of Columbia, state law prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in schools, and in Wisconsin, state law prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation but not gender identity. A larger number of US states have laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in employment.

Multiple US federal court rulings have determined that unequal treatment of same-sex couples constitutes sex discrimination and that students have a right to take a same-sex date to school’s functions (Human Rights Watch, 2016). A journal published by Trans Athlete (2016) contributed to this literature stating that in some states, students are allowed to participate in extracurricular or after school functions with their gender identity. In others, students may participate with their gender identity if they have undergone some form of medical intervention, typically hormone treatments. A number of states use case-by-case evaluations or lack any guidelines to determine how students participate. And in some states, students are required to participate in extracurricular activities as their sex assigned at birth.

Studies by Geidner (2015) found that a constant frustration for transgender students was the refusal or failure of teachers and administrators to use their identified name and pronouns in class and in school records. The US Department of Education (2018) has issued guidance indicating that, under Title IX, schools should respect the name and pronouns of transgender students.

The problems described in the Human Rights Watch Report (2018) undermined a number of fundamental human rights that the US is obliged to uphold under international law, including LGBTQI students’ right to personal security, freedom from discrimination, access to information, free expression, association and privacy. Parker (2016) contests that these rights are guaranteed by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which the US ratified in 1992. All levels of government—federal, state, and local—share in the responsibility to respect and uphold these rights.

The Human Rights Committee (2003) has supported that, Under the ICCPR, the United States is obliged to protect LGBTQI students from discrimination on the basis of their sexuality or gender identity.  

The Department of Education (2015) insisted that so-called no promo homo laws, which restrict discussions of homosexuality in schools, are inherently discriminatory. In addition, because the problem they purport to confront—the ‘recruitment’ of students to homosexuality—is a mistaken belief, the laws serve no practical purpose other than to constrain schools’ effort to provide an education that is inclusive and responsive to the needs of LGBTQI students.  

While evaluating their school climate and culture, a campus leader can assess various indicators of supportive school environments for LGBTQI individuals including anti-discrimination policies and practices; LGBTQI inclusive curriculum, supportive adults, and Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs), (Kosciw, 2012). The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) reported that adults feel more supported when addressing gender identify and expression, and sexual diversity issues in the school setting when anti-harassment policies are in place. In addition, these policies help to send the message to the school community that gender and sexually diverse individuals are worthy of respect and that violence and discrimination won’t be tolerated. (2010)

Kosciw (2012) claimed that a curriculum that includes positive representations of LGBTQI people, history, and events can promote respect for all and improve the experiences of LGBTQI students, families, and educators. Additionally, this research found that the presence of adults who are supportive of LGBTQI students and families can have a positive effect on the school experiences of all students and their psychological well-being. In addition, according to PHAC (2010), supportive adults often seized teachable moments to educate students about sexual orientation, prejudice, and homophobia; as well as addressing assumptions that being gay, lesbian, or bisexual is bad, and further reinforce that everyone in the school environment deserves respect.

School Discipline

Day, Snapp, and Russell (2016) collected data from 745 schools throughout the state of California documenting supportive and punitive approaches to discipline. Their findings indicated that LGBTQI students face disproportionately higher rates of punitive discipline than their heterosexual peers, and added that this may be due to educator or administrator bias.

Educational Exclusion (2016) added that LGBTQI students were more likely to say they planned to drop out of school when they had been discipline at school: 1.5% of LGBTQI students who received disciplined said they planned to drop out, compared to 0.6% of their LGBTQI peers.

Fabelo et al. (2011) exclaim that experiencing school discipline, such as due to a violation of school policies, may also increase an LGBTQI student’s risk of contact with the justice system when students are not in school. For example, Baker et al. (2012) reported that youth who are not in school, because of absenteeism or because they dropped out, are more likely to become engaged in the criminal justice system.

Transgender youth and other gender youth reported more overall contact with juvenile justice system as a result of school discipline compared to their LGBTQI cisgender peers (Educational Exclusion, 2016). Prior research found that youth whose gender expression does not conform to traditional expectation for their gender may have policies applied to them in a biased manner and may experience disproportionate discipline. Among LGBTQI youth in the survey, cisgender youth whose gender expression was nonconforming reported higher rates of school discipline than their gender conforming peers, perhaps due to school rules that prohibit some types of nonconforming gender expression, such as gendered dress codes.

Among LGBTQI youth who may already report disproportionate rates of school drop out, school discipline and justice system involvement, certain racial/ethnic sub-groups of LGBTQI youth may be more at risk. Some recent research among LGBTQI youth studied by Burdge et al. (2014), indicated that LGBTQI youth of color reported biased application of discipline policies and/or the perception of increased surveillance relative to other students.  Less research has examined gender differences within the LGBTQI community, but recent evidence suggested that transgender and other gender minority youth may be at greater risk of dropping out of school and receiving discipline in school.

The 2016 survey completed by Educational Exclusion also found that LGBTQI youth of color reported higher levels of school disciplinary experiences when they attended schools in which they were not the predominant race. Furthermore, transgender youth and youth with another gender identity reported the highest rates of school disciplinary action in the survey, whereas male and female cisgender youth reported the lowest levels of school discipline and were not different from one another.

The same study by Educational Exclusion found that LGBTQI students that did not live at home with parents or guardians were substantially more likely to report all forms of disciplinary action examined. In addition, LGBTQI students who reported having an educational, emotional, or physical disability were substantially more likely to have experienced all types of disciplinary actions examined in the report.

Research by Irby (2014) suggested that exclusionary discipline strategies are associated with more disorderly classrooms and lower engagement and trust with the teacher, and thus, may be counterproductive to learning.

Rather, Morgan et al. (2014) claimed that schools should employ graduated approaches that take into account the seriousness of the offense in order to keep students in school whenever possible, and they should instruct students fully on school policies and the consequences for breaking them.

Recent research and practice by Mitchum and Moodie-Mills (2014) suggested a number of alternatives to harsh discipline and classroom removal when infractions occur in the classroom, including restorative justice and Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS).

Gregory et al. (2014) proclaimed that in restorative justice models, rather than simply punishing the perpetrator and removing them from the classroom, the individual takes responsibility for the infraction and understands its impact on others, as well as takes action to correct the issue and prevent it from occurring again in the future. Such approaches seem linked with reduced use of discipline as well as with narrowed gaps in discipline sanctions between typically marginalized groups of students. Other restorative strategies emphasize supportive relationships between teachers and students rather than discipline; these have been found to reduce discipline gaps as well.

The National Opportunity to Learn Campaign (2014) includes circle models as another restorative approach in which school community members involved or affected by infractions come together in a circle to discuss the situation and work together toward a solution. These models, which seek buy in from students, educators, and even parents, have been used not only for prevention, to foster trust and relationships in the school environment, and to build community, but also to assess the impact and consequences of wrongdoing and infractions.

In addition to state and federal data collection, Losen et al. (2014) insisted that local districts and schools should use the data already available to them to better understand their own disciplinary practices, including whether they are applied appropriately and equitably across student populations, and the outcomes of students who are referred to the courts and justice system for school-based incidents. For example, schools could use GLSEN’s Local School Climate Survey (LSCS), a free, online tool for school staff or students to create and administer a customized school climate survey in their local school or district (GLSEN). Also, Arredondo et al. (2016) urge that to allow for more in-depth examination of this issue for all youth, national, population-based surveys, such as the CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey and surveys conducted by the Department of Education, should include both questions about disciplinary experiences and questions about sexual orientation and gender identity.

Gay-Straight Alliances

A number of studies have been conducted, documenting the benefits of attending a high school that has a GSA. Ioverno (2016) found that the presence of a GSA within a school was associated with experiencing less homophobic victimization for LGBTQI students, even if they were not active members of the alliance. Previous studies have shown that membership in GSAs positively impacts school climates and the lives of their members (Mayberry et al., 2011).

Unfortunately, the most recent National School Climate Survey conducted by GLSEN found that less than 46% of the students surveyed attended a school with an active GSA. (Kosciw et al., 2012). Even in schools where GSAs are established, barriers exist that keep many students from seeking membership. Watson (2010) found that parents were a “barrier to advocacy by restricting their children from joining the GSA.” Watson also reported that GSA advisors were affected by sociocultural factors, school-based factors, and individual factors as they related to their ability to advocate for LGBTQI youth.

More positively, the presence of a GSA acknowledges a queer existence at school, which sends a supportive message to those students too fearful or simply not yet ready to attend meetings (Mayo, 2009). Some have characterized the emergence of Gay-Straight Alliances as “one of the most visible manifestations of the contemporary movement for social justice” (Russell et al., 2009).

ACLU (2012) commented that preventing the formation of a GSA when other student-formed, non-curricular clubs are present is a violation of the Equal Access Act (1984) which requires public schools to allow GSAs to exist alongside other non-curricular student clubs. The Union further claimed that although courts have clearly and repeatedly affirmed that schools must allow such groups to form, strong resistance to GSAs continues in many school systems.

Schools can require that GSAs follow the same rules about forming and operating that other student groups must follow, so long as those rules are consistently applied. Schools cannot, however, require GSAs to adopt a different name or broaden their mission as a condition for their formation. Yet despite decades of clear and consistent guidance from federal courts recognizing the right to form and operate GSAs, Quinlan (2016) found that some schools continue to use various tactics to discourage LGBTQI students from joining together in groups.

In addition to parental notification requirements, state laws, amended in 2007, required schools to prevent the forming of clubs whose mission or activities ‘involve human sexuality’. Johnson (2007) expressed that the law has had a devastating effect on the formation of GSAs in some schools, and some existing GSAs expressed reluctance to discuss certain topics or provide resources to students for fear of stepping out of its prescribed ‘guidelines’.

The Human Rights Watch (2016) discussed that there are many obstacles that LGBTQI youth encounter when forming or operating GSAs that threaten to unduly limit or restrict LGBTQI students’ rights to expression, association, and assembly in schools.


The purpose of this study is to determine how a school leader impacts the ability to build and foster relationships with students of the LGBTQI community. After review of the literature five themes were made apparent to aide in addressing the gap in research. These themes are: (1) safety in schools, (2) anti-bullying, (3) anti-discrimination policies, (4) discipline, and (5) gay-straight alliances. Each of these components of prior research may help to stem a response to the research questions associated to this study: (1) How do school leaders define culturally proficient leadership? (2) In what ways do school leaders believe they practice culturally proficient leadership? (3) In what ways do school leaders believe the culturally proficient leadership practices they identify enable them to build and foster relationships with students of the LGBTQI community? (4) In what ways do school leaders believe they foster culturally proficient practices among the faculty, staff, and student of the LGBTQI community at their schools? And (5) What additional factors do school leaders believe to be essential in the effort to facilitate educators’ supportiveness towards LGBTQI youth?

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