Bias, Bullying, and Homophobia in Elementary Schools: Are Teachers Prepared?

The media has been full of stories about bullying and its damaging effects—but most stories have centered around middle-school and high-school students. Less has been said of bullying in elementary schools. A new study from the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), however, shows that such bullying does exist—including bullying and teasing based on homophobia and gender-nonconformity. Those who contend that elementary students are “too young” to learn about issues related to LGBT people are missing the simple fact that many are already learning about them—in negative and potentially harmful ways.

The striking part about the findings in the new study,  Playgrounds and Prejudice: Elementary School Climate in the United States, is not that such bullying exists, but that it is so widespread. Almost half of the teachers and students surveyed reported regularly hearing comments like use of the word“gay” in a negative way (e.g., “that’s so gay”), “spaz,” or “retard.” About one quarter reported regularly hearing students make homophobic remarks, such as “fag” or “lesbo” and negative comments about race/ethnicity.

Three-fourths of students reported that “students at their school are called names, made fun of or bullied with at least some regularity,” most often because of students’ looks or body size (67 percent), by not being good at sports (37 percent), how well they do at schoolwork (26 percent), not conforming to traditional gender norms/roles (23 percent) or because other people think they’re gay (21 percent).

Of equal interest to me are the findings on family diversity and teacher preparedness. Almost three-quarters of students say they have been taught that there are many different kinds of families—but less than 2 in 10 have learned about families with two dads or two moms. 

Nearly 90 percent of teachers report including representations of different types of families when discussing families in the classroom—but less than a quarter report including representations of LGB parents, and less than 1 in 10 represent transgender parents. Only a quarter report “having personally engaged in efforts to create a safe and supportive classroom environment for families with LGBT parents.”

Eight in 10 teachers said they would feel comfortable addressing name-calling, bullying or harassment of students who are perceived to be LGB or gender nonconforming. But less than half said they feel comfortable responding to questions from their students about LGB people, and even less felt comfortable about questions from their students about transgender people. And while 85 percent of teachers said they received professional development on diversity or multicultural issues, just over a third received professional development specific to gender issues and less than one quarter on families with LGBT parents.

In order to help educators address the above issues, GLSEN today also released the instructional resource Ready, Set, Respect! GLSEN’s Elementary School Toolkit. In addition to that toolkit, I’ll also point readers to the Welcoming Schools program from the HRC Foundation, the PFLAG Safe Schools: Cultivating Respect program, and the films (and associated curriculum guides) That’s a Family and It’s STILL Elementary (for students and teachers, respectively) from Groundspark.

Teachers should not bear the full responsibility of instilling respect in children. Much, if not most, of this must come from parents (which is why it is good to see mainstream childcare books, like the new edition of Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care, start to address LGBT topics). But teachers can play an important role, and it is good to see there are an increasing number of resources to help them do so.

The study was conducted by Harris Interactive on behalf of GLSEN. Online surveys were conducted among 1,065 U.S. elementary school students in 3rd to 6th grade and 1,099 U.S. elementary school teachers of Kindergarten to 6th grade. The national sample was drawn primarily from the Harris Poll Online (HPOL) opt-in panel and supplemented with sample from trusted partner panels.