LGBTQ students feel unsafe in Ky, Ind schools

Kirsten Clark

Andrew Johnson remembers the time another student stuffed him into a locker as a seventh grader at Highland Middle.

The now 16-year-old Atherton High student, who has since come out as a transgender male, identified as bisexual at the time and had just broken up with a girl. He reported the incident to teachers and administrators, who didn’t believe him, he said, despite Andrew’s insistence that his bright blue hair and skeletal print jacket would be identifiable on security camera footage.

“A lot of people would get made fun of for being homosexual, anything other than ‘normal,’” he remembered.

It wasn’t the first time he had been bullied – there was the time the same student beat him up at the bus stop as a 6th grader, he said – and it wouldn’t be the last.

Andrew’s experience isn’t uncommon, according to a national survey on school climate released this week that found that Indiana and Kentucky schools were “not safe” for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer students in 2015.

According to the findings, released this week by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, roughly three out of four LGBTQ student respondents in either state reported experiencing verbal harassment – and nearly one in five said they had been physically assaulted – on the basis of their sexual orientation.

The network collected responses from 10,528 middle and high school students nationwide who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and/or queer.

Nationally, the study found that "anti-LGBT" and homophobic remarks have declined over the past 16 years, although the report notes a slight increase in negative remarks about gender expression. Reports of verbal and physical harassment on the basis of sexual orientation or gender expression were lower last year than it has been since GLSEN began surveying students in 1999, and the incidents of physical assault was its lowest since 2007, according to the report.

Still, "overall rates of homophobic and transphobic harassment are still higher than anyone should be willing to accept," GLSEN Executive Director Eliza Byard wrote in the report.


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The report focuses on school climate at the state and national level, but Anna Giangrande says the findings are consistent with what she hears as program director of the Louisville Youth Group, which aims to provide a safe and supportive space for LGBTQ youths ages 14-20.

Teens have told her about anti-LGBT language they hear in school. At one time, it was phrases like, “that’s so gay,” and “you look good – no homo.” Now, trans students tell her classmates call them “it” in the hallway.

Language matters, she said, particularly when dealing with teens who are struggling to find themselves and are carrying the added weight of their sexuality or gender identity. And it’s even more important, she said, when statistics show that LGBTQ youths are at a higher risk for depression, suicide, drug use and other risky behaviors than their heterosexual, cisgender peers, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Jefferson County Public Schools and other local districts have taken steps in recent years to improve school climate for LGBTQ students.

In 2015, JCPS enacted new protections for transgender students by expanding its nondiscrimination and anti-harassment policy, which already included language barring discrimination and harassment on the basis of sexual orientation, to specifically protect students and others whose gender identity or expression may open them to mistreatment. New Albany-Floyd County Schools followed suit last May.

In addition to building up its policies, JCPS has also developed a process for students, particularly those who are transgender and non-binary, wanting to go by a different name, Giangrande said. Students can fill out a form, signed by one parent or guardian, to request their name be changed on rosters or other records, and groups like Gay-Straight Alliances have also become more common in schools.

JCPS Multicultural Specialist Monica Lakhwani said the district has in recent years built up training for staff and has plans to establish a support coach at each school that can help families with LGBT-related issues.

In an email, a spokesman for New Albany-Floyd County Schools said the district has licensed counselors in all its schools to "address and help prevent verbal and physical harassment for all our students." The district has also created a professional development video on bullying, which addresses changes in Indiana law that call for immediate reporting when bullying of any kind is suspected, he said. A spokeswoman for Greater Clark County Schools said in an email the district "has policies and procedures in place that prohibit physical and/or verbal harassment of any member of our learning community."

Giangrande said she doesn’t want to take away from these improvements, but there is still room for improvement.

“You’re seeing more support, but that doesn’t stop what happens in the hallways,” she said.

The levels of support LGBTQ students receive can vary widely from school to school and teacher to teacher, Giangrande said. Among her recommendations to improve school climate, Giangrande said educators need to be properly trained on the sensitive issues that come along with being an LGBTQ youth.

She and Andrew also agreed that most schools just generally aren’t tough enough when it comes to enforcing anti-harassment policies.

“No one takes bullying as seriously as they claim to,” Andrew said.

Andrew said his experience at Atherton has been a welcome departure from Highland Middle. Teachers and administrators are “really good about protecting students in general,” but especially LGBTQ students – at least in part, he believes, because it was the center of a 2014 push to allow transgender and non-binary students to use the bathroom matching their gender identities.

Last summer, Atherton principal Tom Aberli took leadership of Highland Middle, the school where Andrew experienced incidents of bullying. Since the beginning of the school year, the middle school has established a Gay-Straight Alliance and built up procedures to help teachers identify peer conflict before it escalates into bullying, Aberli said. As a result, he said, the school’s disciplinary incidents for harassment and bullying are down 57 percent.

Andrew said a lot of other schools can look toward Atherton as a model to create a friendlier environment and combat bullying for all students, not just those who identify as LGBTQ.

“Atherton definitely takes the students a lot more seriously than a lot of the other schools do,” he said. “I think people tend to forget that while we are ... younger, we are still young adults. That tends to be a theme – ‘they don’t know what they’re talking about.’ And that stigma is what encourages bullying to keep happening.”

Reporter Kirsten Clark can be reached at 502-582-4144. Follow The Courier-Journal's Education Team on Facebook at

Gay pride flags at the Supreme Court in Washington