Group of diverse students sitting in a circle with hands in front of them

The Amazon TV show Transparent, centered around a transgender parent, earned an Emmy this year. Brilliant scientist Alan Turing, a gay man involved in national security, was the subject of a major motion picture in 2014. During the first Democratic presidential debate, Hillary Clinton proclaimed that society needed to do more to prevent discrimination against the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) community.

It’s clear that LGBT issues are drawing heightened attention in all parts of our society—sports, employment, law, politics, and most definitely education. Not only is the LGBT community becoming more vocal in expressing its concerns and issues to school administrators, but school districts, state boards of education, and the federal government are all becoming far more proactive in attempting to protect the rights of LGBT students.

Most principals realize that LGBT issues are important not just to those students who are members of the LGBT community, but to all students and the entire school community. But that realization doesn’t mean that these issues can simply be checked off on a principal’s agenda. LGBT issues can be complicated, and many principals are looking for guidance and best practices in attempting to deal with them (see Resources below).

When most people think about LGBT issues, they cite bullying and harassment. That’s unfortunately still going on, but secondary school principals should be aware that the issues involving this community go well beyond harassment and bullying, asserts Eliza Byard, executive director at the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN), a quarter-​century-old national education organization focused on ensuring safe schools for all students.

Seventy-four percent of LGBT students were verbally harassed because of their sexual orientation, and 55 percent reported being harassed because of their gender expression, according to the latest GLSEN National School Climate Survey (below). As a result of feeling unsafe or uncomfortable, 30 percent of LGBT students said they missed at least one day of school in the past month, according to the survey.

Four Areas of Concern

GLSEN is working with principals to change that, Byard says. “We want every student in every school to be valued and treated with respect, regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression,” she asserts. “We believe that all students deserve a safe and affirming school environment where they can learn and grow.” However, she adds, principals and school district administrators should develop policies that address not just harassment and bullying, but four major areas of concern to LGBT students:

Inclusive Policies: School policies that address bullying, harassment, and assault are powerful tools for creating safe school environments. These policies should explicitly state protections based on personal characteristics, such as sexual orientation and gender identity/expression. When a school enforces a comprehensive policy, it can send a message that bullying, harassment, and assault will not be tolerated. Comprehensive school policies also demonstrate that student safety is taken seriously by school administrators.

Supportive Adults: LGBT students should receive support from school administrators who recognize that they have the same rights as all students. It’s important for secondary school principals to reach out to the community and to parents when dealing with LGBT issues to explain the concerns, Byard says. Principals are the key value leaders at their schools, and the entire community takes its cue from their actions, she adds.

GSA Activities: LGBT students should be involved in student government. According to the most recent GLSEN survey, about half of all schools have Gay-Straight Alliances. Often, says Byard, it’s difficult for the LGBT community to find faculty sponsors for that group.

Curriculum Development: The curriculum should include positive references to current and/or former members of the LGBT community. The vast majority of the LGBT community says their current school curriculum contains no positive role models for them to emulate, Byard says.

Legal Issues

Jessica Weber, an attorney with Brown, Goldstein, & Levy in Baltimore, MD, says legal issues are taking on increasing significance for school administrators. Principals need to be aware that Title IX, which explicitly prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, now is being interpreted to include gender identity and gender expression. In practice, she explains, you can’t establish separate bathrooms for transgender students.

Principals also should be aware that the First Amendment protects a student’s right to free expression, which includes speaking out about gay pride or sexual orientation, she says. For example, schools may not be able to ban certain theatrical productions, such as one involving two boys discovering that they are in love with each other. Schools cannot establish stricter rules for certain clubs, like the Gay-Straight Alliance, compared with other clubs, Weber points out.

All students have a right of privacy under both the Constitution and Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which means that principals must take particular care when releasing student records, Weber says.

Most importantly, she notes, principals should be aware of two important settlements involving transgender students negotiated by the federal government with school districts. One involved an investigation by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) against the Arcadia, CA, school district, which found that the district had unlawfully prohibited a student from accessing facilities consistent with his male gender identity, including restrooms and locker rooms at school, as well as sex-specific overnight accommodations at a school-​sponsored trip, because he is transgender.

The other, also involving the OCR, resolved a complaint against California’s Downey Unified School District regarding the harassment and discriminatory treatment of a transgender student. The complaint alleged that the district discriminated against a transgender student by failing to respond adequately to complaints that the student was subjected to verbal harassment by peers, and that school staff disciplined her for wearing make-up, discouraged her from speaking about her gender identity with classmates, and suggested that she transfer to another school. (For more information on these cases, see Resources, below.)

One Principal’s Advice

What’s been the experience on the firing line for principals? Patricia Fry, principal at Plymouth South High School in Plymouth, MA, believes that communication is the key issue for principals to ensure that LGBT students feel safe as part of their school community. “That’s communication with staff, students, and family,” Fry emphasizes. Many times, she explains, the first person that a student speaks with about their transgender and/or lesbian/gay status is someone at school because they feel that they can trust that individual. “The school must then take the appropriate steps to support the student but also encourage communication with the child’s family. A breakdown in communication when these issues arise can be a detriment to the success that the student will have in the school community,” she explains.

At Plymouth South, Fry and her staff have developed a protocol for students who report that they are transgender and request to be called by a different name at school. That protocol is implemented in conjunction with guidance provided by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (see below).

With the support of the school adjustment counselor, administrators have been able to support students, communicate with the family, and provide resources and guidance for staff so that the students can ultimately be supported in an appropriate and safe manner. “Generally,” Fry says, “the student body is very accepting of students who choose something that is different—that being a lifestyle, a hair color, or a gender, for example. Yet, the culture of the school building needs to be the priority. A safe and positive school culture with trusting adults is the key ingredient in this mix. Therefore, when students know they are supported, they will thrive and know the channels that are in place to help navigate the journey.”

Kevin Jennings, a founder of GSLEN and executive director of the Arcus Foundation, a global organization dedicated to “social and environmental justice,” echoes Fry’s points on communication. It’s important for secondary school principals to lay down the law. If parents are angry about certain situations involving LGBT students, it’s the principal’s job to make sure that every student at the school is protected from bullying and harassment, and that exceptions can’t be made for LGBT students, Jennings asserts.

When dealing with these issues, he stresses, it’s important for principals to be as specific as possible. “You have to say, ‘bullying and harassment of students will not tolerated—under any circumstances,'” he explains.

Sidebar: Key Findings of GLSEN’s National School Climate Survey on America’s Middle and High Schools

Schools nationwide are hostile environments for a large number of LGBT students. Based on the survey, 74 percent of LGBT students were verbally harassed in the past year because of their sexual orientation, and 55 percent reported being harassed because of their gender expression. As a result of feeling unsafe or uncomfortable, 30 percent said they missed at least one day of school in the past month.

A hostile school climate affects students’ academic success and mental health. LGBT students who experience victimization and discrimination at school have worse educational outcomes and poorer psychological well-being. Grade point averages for these students were between 9 percent and 15 percent lower than for others.

Students with LGBT-related resources and support report better school experiences and academic success. LGBT students in schools with an LGBT-inclusive curriculum were less likely to feel unsafe because of their sexual orientation (35 percent vs. 60 percent). Unfortunately, only 19 percent of LGBT students said they were taught positive representations about LGBT people, history, or events, according to the 2013 survey.

School climate for LGBT students has improved somewhat over the years, but remains hostile for many. Today you’ll find many LGBT-related school resources, due in part to efforts by GLSEN and other safe school advocates. These resources help to project a positive effect on the school environment. LGBT students reported a lower incidence of homophobic remarks in 2013 than ever before-from more than 80 percent who heard these remarks regularly in 2001 to about 60 percent who said so in 2013.

Sidebar: Guidance from Massachusetts Public Schools

The text below includes pertinent provisions of guidance provided by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education on creating a safe and supportive school environment for LGBT students.

  • No person shall be excluded from or discriminated against in admission to a public school of any town, or in obtaining the advantages, privileges, and courses of study of such public school on account of race, color, sex, gender identity, religion, national origin, or sexual orientation.
  • Massachusetts General Law, Part I, Title XII, Chapter 76, Section 5 on discrimination was amended to establish that no person shall be excluded from or discriminated against in admission to a public school of any town, or in obtaining the advantages, privileges, and courses of study of such public school on account of gender identity or sexual orientation, among other characteristics.
  • There is no threshold medical or mental health diagnosis or treatment requirement that any student must meet in order to have his or her gender identity recognized and respected by a school.
  • All students are entitled to have access to restrooms, locker rooms, and changing facilities that are sanitary, safe, and adequate, so they can comfortably and fully engage in their school program and activities. In all cases, the principal should be clear with the student (and parent) that the student may access the restroom, locker room, and changing facility that corresponds to the student’s gender identity.
  • Some students may feel uncomfortable with a transgender student using the same sex-segregated restroom, locker room, or changing facility. This discomfort is not a reason to deny access to the transgender student. School administrators and counseling staff should work with students to address the discomfort and to foster understanding of gender identity, to create a school culture that respects and values all students.
  • As emphasized in other sections of this guidance, these issues should be resolved on a case-by-case basis, through dialogue with students and parents, and through leadership in creating safe and supportive learning environments.
  • Physical education is a required course in all grades in Massachusetts’ public schools, and school-based athletics are an important part of many students’ lives. Most physical education classes in Massachusetts’ schools are co-ed, so the gender identity of students should not be an issue with respect to these classes. With respect to interscholastic athletics, the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association will rely on the gender determination made by the student’s district; it will not make separate gender identity determinations.

Michael Levin-Epstein is senior editor of Principal Leadership.