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Olsen, E.O. M., Kann, L., Vivolo-Kantor, A., Kinchen, S., & McManus, T. (2014). School violence and bullying among sexual minority high school students, 2009–2011. Journal of Adolescent Health, 55, 432–438.

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Specific subgroups of students, including sexual minority (i.e., gay, lesbian, or bisexual) students are at increased risk for school violence and bullying. Sexual minority youth may experience short- and long-term health problems because of school violence and bullying, including increased risk for suicide and other mental health problems, cigarette smoking, alcohol and other drug use, and unsafe sexual behaviors. The purpose of this study is to establish the prevalence of school violence and bullying among homosexual and heterosexual students.

Method:

This study used two data sets: one created by combining Youth Risk Behavior Survey data from 10 states and the other created by combining data from 10 districts. Each of these states and districts included a question on sexual identity in their YRBS questionnaire and had weighted data in the 2009 and/or 2011 cycle. Each site used independent samples designed to generate data representative of public school students in grades 9 through 12 in their jurisdiction. Most sites assessed sexual identity using the question “Which of the following best describes you?” with the response options “heterosexual (straight),” “gay or lesbian,” “bisexual,” and “not sure.” Five items were used to measure school violence and bullying on school property. Physical fighting on school property and being threatened or injured with a weapon on school property were assessed with the questions “During the past 12 months, how many times were you in a physical fight on school property?”and “During the past 12 months, how many times has someone threatened or injured you with a weapon such as a gun, knife, or club on school property?”. Being bullied on school property was assessed with one item, “During the past 12 months, have you ever been bullied on school property?” with the response options “yes” or “no.” The YRBS questionnaire also uses two questions to assess race and ethnicity. Ethnicity was classified as white, non-Hispanic, black, non-Hispanic, and Hispanic or Latino.

Results:

In the state data set, 66.4% of the students were white compared with 12.5% of the students in the district data set. In the state data set, 94.0% of the male students were heterosexual, 1.8% were gay, 2.1% were bisexual, and 2.1% were unsure, and 89.4% of the female students were heterosexual, 1.3% were lesbian, 6.5% were bisexual, and 2.8% were unsure. Similarly, in the district data set, 91.7% of the male students were heterosexual, 2.7% were gay, 2.7% were bisexual, and 3.0% were unsure, and 84.6% of the female students were heterosexual, 2.0% were lesbian, 9.3% were bisexual, and 4.1% were unsure. All school violence and bullying behaviors were strongly associated with sexual identity for male and female students in both data sets. Male students compared with female students across all types of sexual identity generally had at least equal, if not significantly higher, prevalence rates for all behaviors. In the state data set, being bullied on school property among gay (43.1%) and bisexual (35.2%) male students was the most commonly reported behavior. In contrast, 18.3% of heterosexual male students reported this behavior. About one quarter (26.1%) of bisexual male students had been in a physical fight on school property compared with 11.3% of heterosexual male students. Similarly, about one quarter of gay (24.8%) and bisexual (23.1%) male students had been threatened or injured with a weapon on school property compared with 7.8% of heterosexual male students.

In the district data set, being in a physical fight on school property (33.6%) and being bullied on school property (33.2%) among bisexual male students were the most commonly reported
behaviors. In contrast, among heterosexual male students, 16.3% had been in a physical fight on school property and 11.4% had been bullied on school property. About one quarter of
gay students had been in a physical fight on school property (24.7%), threatened or injured with a weapon on school property (25.0%), and been bullied on school property (25.7%), and 25.8% of bisexual male students had been threatened or injured with a weapon on school property. In contrast, among heterosexual male students, 16.3% had been in a physical fight on school property, 9.0% had been threatened or injured with a weapon on school property, and 11.4% had been bullied on school property.

In the state data set, gay male students were more likely than heterosexual male students to have been threatened or injured with a weapon on school property and been bullied on school property. Bisexual male students were more likely than heterosexual male students to have experienced all five school violence and bullying behaviors. Compared with heterosexual male students, gay students were about three times more likely to have been threatened or injured with a weapon on school property. Lesbian and bisexual female students were more likely than heterosexual female students to have experienced all five school violence and bullying behaviors, although the increased risks were generally not as high among bisexual female students as they were for lesbian students. Compared with heterosexual female students, lesbian students were about three times more likely to have been in a physical fight on school property, about four times more likely to have been threatened or injured with a weapon on school property, and about six times more likely to have carried a weapon on school property.

In the district data set, gay male students and bisexual male students were more likely than heterosexual male students to have experienced all five school violence and bullying behaviors.
Compared with heterosexual male students, bisexual male students were about three times more likely to have carried a weapon and been bullied on school property. Lesbian and bisexual female students were more likely than heterosexual female students to have been in a physical fight on school property, been threatened or injured with a weapon on school property and carried a weapon on school property. Bisexual female students were also more likely to have been bullied at school.

Discussion:

The results of this study imply that sexual minority students routinely experience increased school violence and bullying compared with their heterosexual counterparts. These results may increase the risk for suicide and other mental health problems, including depression and lowered self-esteem, and poor academic performance among sexual minority adolescents.
These related risks are associated with long-term negative health outcomes. School bullying has been linked to school climate; a positive school climate, defined as “individual perceptions that
school was a good place to be, where students and teachers could be trusted, students were treated with respect, and rules were fair” (p. 307), is negatively associated with bullying
victimization. Further, in schools where teachers endorse attitudes that are dismissive of bullying occurrence, victimization rates are high, and a negative environment has been linked to increased risk for suicide attempts among sexual minority youth. Anti-bullying policies that specifically address sexual minority students may benefit all students and reduce peer victimization. Gay-straight alliances (GSAs) are another way to improve school climate for sexual minority students. The presence of GSAs in schools has been shown to reduce truancy, violent incidents, and health risk behaviors including cigarette smoking, drinking alcohol, suicide attempts, and having sex with casual partners among all students, but these results were more pronounced among sexual minority students.