Jason Flom

Keeping a Hidden Population Safe at School

What percentage of students is it okay to let feel unsafe at school?

  1. 0 percent
  2. 1 percent
  3. 5 percent
  4. 10 percent

You, like me, probably answered zero percent. As an educator dedicated to a whole child approach to education, you recognize the value of each and every learner.

What if I told you we have allowed (albeit unintentionally in most cases), if not contributed to, an entire population of students feeling unsafe at school? A population of students you are most likely rooting for as they enter adulthood and pursue equal rights.

Paradigm Shift

We stand in the midst of a great and historic shift in our collective understanding and acceptance (dare I say "embrace"?) of gender and sexuality diversity. Court after court and voter after voter continue to trend toward equality for all, no matter one’s gender or sexual orientation.

It is something we can and should be proud of. However, there is still much heavy lifting to be done as a society. Schools committed to a whole child education can (and should) be leaders in creating a safe and healthy climate for all students by increasing understanding, empathy, and compassion for gender and sexuality diversity, even among the youngest of learners.

When we talk about safe and healthy as core components of a whole child education, we are really talking about safe and healthy across the board—physically, emotionally, socially, and intellectually. Yet, too often schools are not safe and healthy for students who do not conform to "heteronormativity."

In her book From the Dress-Up Corner to the Senior Prom: Navigating Gender and Sexuality Diversity in PreK–12 Schools, author Jennifer Bryan, PhD, defines heteronormativity as:

The binary view of gender and sexuality that assumes and privileges heterosexuality in individuals, couple and families, and supports traditional masculine and feminine gender roles and expression. It is the cultural and social "management" of gender and sexuality and is promoted and maintained by individuals and institutions.

The challenge is that our heteronormative biases can be so entrenched in our belief and behavior systems that we don't even notice how pervasive they are in our organizational structures. That is, if by "we" I mean those of us who identify as heterosexual.

For students and faculty who do not conform to these "norms," the silence of our unexamined (though, to be fair, often times unintentional) ignorance can be deafening.

The Secret Life of Gender and Sexually Diverse Students

Tracking the number of students who identify as nonheteronormative (meaning they see themselves as outside the "binary view of gender and sexuality") is incredibly challenging for a number of reasons, not the least of which is because not all of them are forthright with something so deeply personal. And for good reason.

The 2011 GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network) National School Climate Study (PDF) sampled 8,584 students between the ages of 13 and 20 from all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. The study found that 61.3 percent of surveyed students self-identified as gay or lesbian. Among their many statistics are these key findings (p. xiv):

Biased Remarks at School

  • 84.9 percent of students heard "gay" used in a negative way (e.g., "that's so gay") frequently or often at school, and 91.4 percent reported that they felt distressed because of this language;
  • 71.3 percent heard other homophobic remarks (e.g., "dyke" or "faggot") frequently or often;
  • 61.4 percent heard negative remarks about gender expression (not acting "masculine enough" or "feminine enough") frequently or often;
  • 56.9 percent of students reported hearing homophobic remarks from their teachers or other school staff; and
  • 56.9 percent of students reported hearing negative remarks about gender expression from teachers or other school staff.

Safety and Victimization at School

  • 63.5 percent felt unsafe because of their sexual orientation, and 43.9 percent because of their gender expression;
  • 81.9 percent were verbally harassed (e.g., called names or threatened) in the past year because of their sexual orientation, and 63.9 percent because of their gender expression;
  • 38.3 percent were physically harassed (e.g., pushed or shoved) in the past year because of their sexual orientation, and 27.1 percent because of their gender expression;
  • 18.3 percent were physically assaulted (e.g., punched, kicked, injured with a weapon) in the past year because of their sexual orientation, and 12.4 percent because of their gender expression; and
  • 55.2 percent of LGBT students experienced electronic harassment in the past year (via text messages or postings on Facebook), often known as cyberbullying.

The high incidence of harassment and assault is exacerbated by school staff who rarely, if ever, intervene on behalf of LGBT students.

  • 60.4 percent of students who were harassed or assaulted in school did not report the incident to school staff, most often believing little to no action would be taken or the situation could become worse if reported.
  • 36.7 percent of the students who did report an incident said that school staff did nothing in response.

If even one percent of students feeling unsafe at school is unacceptable (and it should be), then these are students that deserve and need our attention and action.

Change is Hard

CHANGING the culture of a school can be exhausting even when "easy." TRANSFORMING the culture can be like trying to wrestle a bear, while blindfolded and dodging oncoming traffic. In the winter, while wearing Bermuda shorts and flip flops. But if we are ever to achieve equity and the goals of a whole child approach to education, it is the most daunting of challenges that we must pursue.

Bryan suggests two essential frameworks for "Individual educators and whole school community to apply" (p. xx11) toward creating a learning environment that is safe for all students:

Framework 1: Educators must have a thorough, contemporary understanding of gender identity development (GID) and sexual identity development (SID) in children and adolescents, paying particular attention to the impact of heteronormative expectations on GID and SID.

Framework 2: School mission and educational philosophy must be the central reference points for establishing policy and best "good" pedagogical practices for addressing gender and sexuality diversity (GSD).

Taking a page out of Robert Kegan and Eleanor Drago-Severson's work, Bryan starts the process of transforming a school's culture with the creation of a "holding space" (though she doesn't call it that) where critical conversations among adults can occur safely. She goes on to explain "8 Critical Approaches to GSD Professional Development" (p. 136):

  1. Adult learning is positively correlated with student achievement.
  2. GSD professional development programs (PDP) must include both information (i.e., facts) and transformational (i.e., new perspectives) learning opportunities.
  3. Process-oriented approaches to PDP should be emphasized.
  4. Transformational learning involves changing perspectives and paradigms.
  5. Transformational learning is intellectually and emotionally challenging.
  6. Teachers use of self (i.e., knowledge, emotions, and identity) is an effective pedagogical approach to engaging GSD.
  7. In order to fully engage GSD, teachers much see that they have both the power to change and the power to maintain heteronomativity in their community.
  8. Teachers who engage in this informational and transformational learning about GSD typically find the experience valuable.

She continues with valuable strategies for implementing and sustaining change that are grounded in experience, research, and reflection. These strategies target both the school culture as well as classroom practices that are well worth the read and exploration.

Where Do I Start?

While this can all feel overwhelming, it is beneficial to begin by raising awareness. You already know very well that not all students experience school in the same way. Understanding that this extends to how students respond to heteronormative biases—either toward other students or in how they view themselves—is a good first step.

Questions I might ask of myself:

  • How do I ensure students who identify as nonheteronormative feel safe in my classroom and school?
  • How will I know when they do?
  • When do I assume a binary view of gender and sexuality diversity?
  • How can I create a space where gender and sexuality diversity is welcome?
  • How will I know when I have?

For raising awareness with others, you might also consider sharing the documentary Straightlaced with your faculty and colleagues. Even the trailer is informative.



Bryan, J. (2012). From the Dress-Up Corner to the Senior Prom: Navigating Gender and Sexuality Diversity in PreK–12 Schools. United Kingdom: R&L Education.

Kosciw, J.G., Greytak, E.A., Bartkiewicz, M.J., Boesen, M.J., & Palmer, N.A. (2012). The 2011 National School Climate Survey: The experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth in our nation's schools. New York: GLSEN.

Draco-Severson, E. (2012). Helping Educators Grow: Strategies and Practices for Leadership Development. Cambridge: Harvard Education Publishing Group.

Jason Flom is the director-elect at Cornerstone Learning Community where he was a founding teacher of the elementary school. The school is dedicated to transformational practices that put students first, empower their voice, and engage them in service learning. Additionally, he serves as an ASCD Faculty member with the Virtual Learning Network working with science educators across the nation. He is also a member of ASCD's Emerging Leader Program, class of 2010. Connect with Flom on Twitter @JasonFlom.

Comments (2)

Jennifer Bryan

July 10, 2014

Thanks so much, Jason for mentioning my book in this post. The Straightlaced clip you included provides insight into the gendered experiences of adolescents. For those who work with PreK-6, I recommend the short film by Welcoming Schools: What Can We Do? Bias, Bullying, and Bystanders. Even the 2 minute trailer provides a powerful window into the impact of gender and sexuality based bias on our youngest students. http://www.welcomingschools.org/what-can-we-do-bias-bullying-and-bystanders/

Jason Flom

July 23, 2014

Thanks for the additional resource, Jennifer. And for the wonderful book. Cheers.

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