Toward a Spatial and Structural Analysis of Bullying

The Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) is the only organizations I know of that sponsors a national study examining the experiences of LGBT youth in American schools.  The findings from the 2011 survey revealed–for the first time since the survey has been in existence–that homophobia, heterosexism, sexual prejudice, and discrimination in America’s schools appear to be declining.  Part of this has to do with an increase in LGBT student resources and support.  This is encouraging as it illustrates that an impact can be made.  The availability of resources and support have a direct relationship with the experiences of students.  So, things like Gay-Straight Alliances, anti-bullying policies, a school staff sensitive to the identities and challenges of LGBT students, and a more inclusive curriculum are changing gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender student experiences.

The real challenge, however, is to transform the very cultures within which students interact with each other.  Each of these interventions is associated with school culture, but school cultures are something more as well.  While teachers can monitor a great deal of student interaction, and safe spaces now exist in many schools, more toxic school cultures will continue to support violence and intimidation in spaces we are less capable of monitoring.  Survey results indicated, for instance, that LGBT students feel most threatened in locker rooms (39%), bathrooms (38.8%), and in gym class (32.5%).

We also know now that most LGBT victims of harassment or assault–like victims of sexual abuse and assault–are not likely to report harassment, abuse, and assaults.  Over 60% of respondents stated that they never reported incidents that occurred.  And though the numbers are apparently declining, they are still incredibly high: 82% of LGBT students reported verbal harassment, 38% reported physical harassment, and 18.3% reported having been physically assaulted.

And being “out” at school is still dangerous.  While “out” gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender youth seem to have higher levels of psychological well-being, it comes at a cost–they are much more likely to experience victimization than are closeted youth.  Harassment and abuse also was strongly–and negatively–correlated with student success (see here and here).

CJ Pascoe’s research on high school boys in Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School  illustrates precisely how insidious and entrenched these issues are (see also here, here, and here).  Pascoe’s research highlights how bullying in schools is part of the organization of social life within schools.  When I have students read her work, most are struck by the ways that adults collude with and participate in homophobic and gender policing taunts.  It’s easy to think of these teachers as bad apples, but it’s probably more accurate to say that they are enticed to participate by the same cultural environments that provoke the students.

Pascoe’s analysis of bullying, masculinity challenges, and the reproduction of gender and sexual inequality in school settings frames the debate in spatial and cultural terms.  It’s less a question of who is bullying, and more a question of where bullying occurs and is likely to occur.  A school culture that has historically supported bullying is–from this perspective–unlikely to get rid of this harmful behavior by providing harsher sanctions.  Like all change than endures, if schools are to be transformed, Pascoe believes that their best bet is to help students produce change from the ground up.

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