Colliding Realities in America's Middle Schools

The past couple of weeks have brought the American public two very different perspectives on how lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues play out in our middle schools, from extremely different sources.

On Sept. 19, at the "Values Voter Summit" in Washington, DC, Michael Schwartz, chief of staff to Senator Tom Coburn, averred that 10-year-old boys have "less tolerance for homosexuality than just about any other class of people." (And, by the way, that's a good thing, Schwartz said, because it reflects the fact that they don't want to be gay.)

Then on Sunday, the New York Times Magazine published a cover story on students coming out in middle school, in which students reported knowing that they were gay or lesbian by the age of 9, 10 or 11. Imagine the clash of those two realities--10-year-olds intolerant of gay people and 10-year-olds realizing they are gay--playing out in both hidden and public ways every day in school hallways.

Unfortunately, the picture might even be worse than what our imaginations could cook up, considering findings from a newly released GLSEN Research Brief. The brief reveals that middle school LGBT students reported rates of harassment and assault that were significantly higher than those reported by high school LGBT students: more middle school students had been verbally harassed, and a shocking 63% had heard homophobic remarks made by school staff. About two of every five LGBT middle school students had been assaulted - punched, kicked or threatened with a weapon - at school, as compared to "only" one in five of the high school respondents.

The fact that so many high school students had been assaulted at school is harrowing enough--now picture things nearly twice as bad for students even earlier in their lives, and farther from having that crucial high school diploma. The bad news continues as you look to critical indicators of academic success, such as school attendance. Middle school students were more likely to report having skipped school in the past month out of fear for their personal safety (fully half of the middle school students surveyed had done so, about one-third of the high school respondents had). Their grade point averages, not surprisingly, suffer as well--averaging a half point lower than those of their peers.

Things are so bad in middle schools, at least in part, because they are much less likely than high schools to have addressed these issues head on. In other words, students like those profiled in the New York Times article are much less likely to be getting the help and support that they need to have equal access to an education. Fewer middle school students than high school students can identify supportive faculty members, and almost no middle schools had a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA). This last fact is particularly unfortunate in light of what Kendra Wallace, principal of Daniel Webster Middle School in Los Angeles, told the Times about the GSA at her school. The GSA "is a club that promotes safety, and it gives kids a voice," she said, "And the most amazing thing has happened since the GSA started. Bullying of all kinds is way down. The GSA created this pervasive anti-bullying culture on campus that affects everyone."

I suppose the good news here is that there is such a clear path to creating a safer school climate. Over time we have seen signs of improvement in school climate in those schools that haven't shied away from this issue and have taken action - instituting explicitly inclusive anti-bullying policies that are clearly articulated to the full school community; providing training to school staff to ensure that all students are safe and supported at school; supporting student efforts to speak out about these issues and improve school climate through GSAs; and using curricular materials that accurately and appropriately reflect LGBT people, history and events.

This crisis in American middle schools is a part of the huge challenge that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan seeks to tackle, armed with $100 billion in stimulus funds and a general acknowledgment that our schools are not currently living up to our societal obligation to provide all young people with a fair shot at a good future.

As schools heed his call to address gaps in achievement and turn around our lowest-performing schools, they must not lose sight of the fact that there are some very basic steps to be taken in the middle grades before that can become part of middle school reality.