One in five GLBT students were physically assaulted in Minnesota schools due to their sexual orientation, according to survey results from the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN). The figures add to the growing evidence that schools are hostile places for gay students, and to the public attention that has grown since reports of suicides involving gay students.
Released Tuesday, the 2009 results are based on responses from 181 teens in Minnesota who identified themselves as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. The state-specific release is based on survey results from 7,261 teens nationally that were released last fall.
Among the Minnesota teens, 84 percent said their sexual orientation resulted in verbal harassment, 47 percent said it resulted in physical harassment, and 19 percent said it led to physical assaults. (The survey defined physical harassment as being pushed or shoved, and defined assault as being punched, kicked or injured by a weapon.)
Almost all GLBT students in the survey reported hearing the word "gay" used in a negative way -- such as "that's so gay!" -- and hearing classmates use homophobic remarks.
Local attention on this issue centered on the Anoka Hennepin School District, which suffered six suicides in a 12-month period -- including the death of Justin Aaberg, a gay student at Anoka High School. His mother, Tammy Aaberg, criticized the district for failing to create a welcoming, safe climate and for adopting a so-called "neutrality" policy that limited how teachers and staff could address sexual orientation and support gay students.
District officials and suicide prevention experts were quick to point out that not all of the suicides involved students who were bullied or who were gay. The Anoka district at one point even concluded that none of the six suicides involved bullying. The concern is that too much loose talk about bullying causing suicide might convince bullied or gay students that suicide is an option.
It is also important to place bullying figures for any specific group in context. Overall, as many as a third of middle and high school students reported being bullied at school, according to a recent federal report.
The new survey data nonetheless shows a unique lack of support in schools for gay students. While almost all responding students reported that there was at least one supportive teacher available to them, only a third said their school districts had "comprehensive" bullying policies that specifically protected students from harassment due to their sexual orientation. GLSEN said responding students reported less victimization and better grades when their schools had such comprehensive policies in place.