It doesn't take the first ever national study of homophobia in elementary school students to convince me that prejudice starts young. But the aforementioned data aptly titled Playgrounds and Prejudices has arrived and the numbers reveal all kinds of concerning, anti-LGBTQ words that kids are hurling at one another. And not only are teachers hearing every syllable of this discriminatory language, they're also not doing anything about it.
This unprecedented study surveyed a little over 1,000 students from third through sxith grade, as well as a little over 1,000 teachers to reveal that 45% of kids and 49% of teachers regularly heard the word "gay" as negative criticism -- as in "that's so gay." About a quarter of both teachers and students consistently hear "fag" or "lesbo" being used about the halls as well as racist comments. Three-fourths of kids surveyed said that they are bullied in some capacity while at school with almost a quarter citing their nonconformity to gender roles as the reason, and 21% adding that it's because other students think that they're gay. About one in ten of these kids said that don't always follow gender norms with regard to the whole pink and blue code of social conduct, and these kids were overwhelming more likely to feel less safe at school.
So how precisely are teachers responding to blatant homophobia springing from the mouths of babes? Considering what these men and women see everyday, it's not surprising that less than half of them believe that a gender nonconforming student would feel comfortable going to school. The majority seem to have their sympathies with the teased "seemingly gay" children, as 83% find it their absolute obligation to maintain a safe learning environment for non gender-conforming kids, and another 70% say the same about children who happen to come from LGBTQ families. But even though 85% of teachers have received formal training on "diversity" and "multicultural issues," less than half (37%) received any training about gender issues and less than a quarter (23%) on how to handle kids from same-sex parents.
And despite 81% saying that they would feel confident addressing homophobic bullying, only one-quarter of these teachers have "personally engaged in efforts to create a safe and supportive classroom environment for families with LGBT parents." Different family models are addressed and discussed by 89% of teachers, butt less than a quarter told researchers that they represent LGBTQ families in these discussions. And that perhaps accounts for only about two in every 10 of these kids learning about same-sex parents.
Peter DeWitt, a New York elementary school principal and author of Dignity for All: Safeguarding LGBT Students, told ABC that what accounts for this schism is a fear of "push back" from parents and fearfulness about that big, scary "gay agenda" that might be seeping into classrooms. He told the outlet:
"Nobody's pushing an agenda on kids," he said. "It's about accepting and creating an inclusive climate where all kids are accepted. It's not just about gay kids. When they go to the work force, they will be exposed to all types of people. It's a skill you need to know."
GLSEN Executive Director Eliza Byard said in a statement that she and her colleagues' findings reveal how teachers need more education themselves on a variety of LGBTQ and gender issues to properly address the plights of bullied kids:
"Playgrounds and Prejudice articulates a desire among elementary educators to create optimal learning environments for all students, but there is a larger need to provide educational tools and resources that enhance their understanding of gender nonconforming students and families with LGBT parents...School climate and victimization can affect students' educational outcomes and personal development at every grade level...The report also shows the need for elementary schools to do more to address issues of homophobia, gender expression and family diversity."
For the sake of all children's safety and development, schools need to be able to tackle these issues without worrying about the PTA gnashing their teeth about "indoctrinating children into the homosexual lifestyle." Not addressing gender expression and the mere existence of non-straight people is not only a sign that people are choosing to bury their head in the sand, it's also clearly dangerous and hurtful to children as evidenced by these numbers. Giving teachers the tools to uphold tolerance bodes well for all children, regardless of how they identify, and ensures that everyone, no matter who their parents have married or what they like to wear, gets respected once they get to class.