Steven Hobaica wasn’t necessarily surprised that the findings matched his hypothesis.
Hobaica co-authored a study published this summer examining the correlation between the political leanings of a school district and levels of bullying against LGBTQ+ students.
Authors used the 2018 Washington State Healthy Youth Survey, which was completed by 49,555 public school students representing 227 of the state’s 295 school districts, along with school district voting records from the 2016 presidential election. The Healthy Youth Survey was completed by students in eighth, 10th and 12th grades during a school day in 2018, according to the study, with 20% of participants identifying as LGBTQ+.
The findings, published in the journal Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, show that LGBTQ+ students in school districts with more votes for Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential election reported more bullying. The survey data in general found that bullying was associated with greater psychological distress — such as anxiety, depression and suicidal tendencies — for all students, even more so for LGBTQ+ students.
While the study found increased levels of intervention by teachers related to less bullying for students, LGBTQ+ students in more conservative school districts reported that teachers were less likely to intervene — possibly suggesting anti-LGBTQ+ bias among teachers and staff, the study states.
Hobaica said he predicted as much heading into the research, as political conservatism is typically associated with less accepting attitudes toward LGBTQ+ people.
The study is not about demonizing a particular political party, however, Hobaica said.
“It’s really about protecting all of our youth in schools regardless of how they identify,” he said.
The study qualified that while voting for Trump in the 2016 election “is not a perfect reflection of voting attitudes or fully synonymous with conservative political beliefs, research has consistently linked voting for Trump with prejudicial views of minority groups.”
More often than not, stories shared to those with the LGBTQ+ advocacy group Odyssey Youth Movement about negative bullying experiences and nonresponsive administrators tend to come from students from more outlying county, conservative school districts, said Ian Sullivan, executive director of Odyssey Youth Movement.
“That’s not to say concerns don’t happen in districts like Spokane Public (Schools),” Sullivan said, “but they don’t get addressed nearly as appropriately or nearly as often in some of those other districts.”
Washington school districts are mandated to have a policy that, at minimum, “complies with legislation prohibiting harassment, intimidation, and bullying,” according to the study.
School boards can adopt individualized district standards beyond state or federal legislation, but researchers found that policy is often adopted reactively following an adverse event rather than proactively.
Paul Kwon, a psychology professor at WSU and a co-author of the study, said effective policies include providing regular training for teachers on LGBTQ+ issues and implementing organizations that promote “safety and a sense of belonging,” such as a school gay-straight alliance.
“This project highlights an inequity that is not talked about a lot,” Kwon said in a statement, “and shows the need for more explicit and inclusive anti-bullying legislation and policies that help mitigate the risks to LGBTQ+ youth regardless of district political attitudes.”
“Sometimes, that’s what research has to do: To take a good amount of time to document something with a large sample that a lot of people already know exists, so that way it can give voice to those experiences and hopefully change policy,” Hobaica said.
Upon moving to East Valley High school from Post Falls this past year, Kaci Thomas said she found community with the school’s gay-straight alliance.
The 17-year-old said her experiences with bullying started when she came out as bisexual in seventh grade, later openly identifying as a lesbian in eighth grade. That included being excluded from tables or ignored, being called a slur, and her peers asking her to change elsewhere in the locker room.
Through it all, Thomas said she didn’t feel much support from teachers or administrators.
“It just kind of got brushed off,” she said. “I feel like that kind of stuff wouldn’t happen if I was straight and fit in with everybody else. It’s hard being one of the only gay kids at your school because you just feel so different from everyone else. You feel like an alien at school.”
It’s improved since moving to East Valley, Thomas said, but it’s not perfect. She’s joined on the high school’s gay-straight alliance by group President Eva Sheffler and India Tittman.
Sheffler said there was fear that a skate night the group held in June for Pride Week was going to be raided or threatened. While everything was fine in the end, Sheffler said she remembered her LGBTQ+ students being “on edge.”
“I think it would be really cool to get some LGBTQ+ education in schools because that will help stop bigotry and hatred from its root,” she said, “and will help teachers feel more comfortable interacting with their students in general.”
Sullivan noted that school bullying doesn’t just happen at lunchtime or between classes these days, as bullying “can follow people home,” whether it’s online or via text message.
While having administrators who are supportive of LGBTQ+ students is great, it’s more important that teachers, clerical staff, lunch workers and others who interact with students on a daily basis know how to appropriately respond to concerns — and not just those from LGBTQ+ students.
“This is an everybody problem,” he said. “This is not just a LGBTQ youth or parents of LGBTQ youth problem. Anybody in our school communities who is feeling isolated, who is feeling bullied or feels like they can’t truly be themselves, that’s a problem for the entire community.”