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Supporting Queer Youth in Schools Using an Multi Tiered Approach

Patrick Mulkern, MSW, PPSC


Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Questioning (LGBTQ+) youth experience health and educational disparities compared to their heterosexual, cisgender peers. The 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, conducted by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that LGBTQ+ high school students reported higher rates of being bullied, feeling sad or hopeless, seriously considering suicide, and experiencing sexual and physical dating violence (CDC, 2018; Jones et al., 2019). LGBTQ+ students who experience higher rates of victimization, are three times more likely to miss school due to feeling unsafe at or during their commute to and from school, have lower grade point averages, and are twice as likely to not plan to pursue post secondary education (Kosciw et al., 2018).

These disparities are caused in part by the unique, chronic, and socially based stressors and stigmas that LGBTQ+ youth endure at an individual, interpersonal, and institutional level (Goldback & Gibbs, 2017; Hatzenbuehler & Pachankis, 2016; Meyer, 2003). Heteronormativy and cisnormativity continue to structure and be “felt within schools, both with respect to the official curriculum, but also within the informal school culture” (Kjoran, 2017, p. 97). School social workers have an ethical imperative to disrupt these oppressive systems and to provide support for LGBTQ+ students and their families in order to reduce these educational and health disparities.

Theoretical Framing

Queer and Narrative Theories are lenses that school social workers can use when thinking about how to support LGBTQ+ students in schools and disrupt the hetero and cisnormativity that permeates school cultures. Queer theory challenges notions of what is “normal” and “typical,” takes an antiessentialist approach, and views identities as socially constructed. In practice, school social workers can deconstruct the idea that there are only two genders and that gender aligns with anatomical sex assigned at birth by thinking critically about language used and the ways that students are grouped. In addition to creating a safe, affirming, and welcoming school for LGBTQ+ students, these practices can create an environment that challenges gender norms and roles and supports healthy development.

Although it is important for school social workers to have an understanding and knowledge of identities and terms used within the queer community, language is also fluid and changing. People with similar identities may use different terms and labels for their identities, bodies, partners, and experiences. School social workers can take a narrative stance and listen to and adopt the language used by those with whom they work. School social workers have expertise in many aspects of the work, but they must also respect, value, and highlight the knowledge of students and families, especially in regards to their lives and experiences.

The research focuses on disparities and challenges that LGBTQ+ students face including bullying, suicidal ideation, and risky sexual behavior; however, these “problems” should not be viewed as located within the individual and work must be done to avoid falling into the trap of focusing on the problem narrative. The strength and resilience that students and their families exhibit while they navigate complex and unwelcoming environments should be celebrated and actions should be taken so that the environments become more welcoming and affirming (Mayo, 2014). Supporting children and families involves externalizing the problem and taking an intersectional approach to naming and addressing the ways in which the challenges and problem narratives are created and maintained by institutional systems of oppression such as racism, ableism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia (Madigan, 2019). Supporting the academic, social, and emotional growth and success of students requires large scale institutional change in addition to the day to day services provided.

In practice, school social workers can conceptualize their work with LGBTQ+ students and their families through a tiered approach, similar to that used for Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), implementing universal, targeted, and intensive interventions.

Universal Interventions

Tier I interventions are universal and designed for all students, staff, families, and community members. It is best to start this work early and to continue to reflect on individual practices as well as the practices of the school and school district. Each school, regardless of level, should think critically and plan ways to improve the policies, procedures, environment, and curriculum impacting LGBTQ+ students and families. Preparing this before a school has their first “out” student or family will help prevent that student or family from becoming the “singular sites of all learning and change” (Meyer et al., 2018, p. 136). This work requires school social workers to educate themselves on ways to improve school climate, while listening to the expertise of students and families by following their advocacy.

Safe, supportive, and affirming school culture and climate supports the academic, social, and emotional success for all students and acts as a protective factor for LGBTQ+ youth (Gower et al., 2019; Sugai & Horner, 2009). The best practices of developing school wide community expectations and implementing community building practices support all students. Part of building a community involves using a person’s name and pronouns correctly. Gender identity and pronouns cannot be assumed based on appearances. Therefore, school social workers can model and educate school staff on ways to ask for pronouns during check ins, create opportunities for students to privately share pronouns, and how to continue to have conversations regarding gender throughout the year.

School social workers can encourage school staff to challenge the hetero and cisnormativity embedded in school wide policies and procedures. Dress code policies require specific attention because of the way they are meant to “regulate and maintain the normative gender, sexuality, race and class” (Aghasaleh, 2018, pp. 102). Students can be involved in critically examining district and school dress code policies and provide recommendations to ensure that they do not reinforce gender stereotypes or disproportionately impact queer students and students of color.

The physical space within schools is an important aspect to consider when thinking about the ways in which messages are explicitly and implicitly sent to students. Students look for visual cues to identify if someone on staff or a space on campus is going to be a safe and affirming place for them. GLSEN, the Human Rights Campaign, the True Colors Fund, and various other organizations have materials available online in various languages including posters and stickers. Placing these items in offices, wellness centers, and classrooms sends the message to students that the adults in those spaces are allies. Exhibiting art created by students and art that is representative of the intersectional identities of students also messages that they are important, valued, and seen. School social workers frequently use picture books in their work with students or have books available for students to read and take with them. The HRC Foundation’s Welcoming Schools website has an extensive list of books that celebrate and highlight LGBTQ+ diversity. Similar to the artwork and books, the paperwork that students are required to fill out are opportunities to show support, awareness, and allyship. Often times, intake forms reinforce binary concepts of sex, gender, and sexuality. If a student advisory group of students exists within the school, they can provide feedback and recommendations for ways to improve the paperwork and the way questions are asked.

LGBTQ+ students often cite school bathrooms and locker rooms as sites of stress and trauma due to the way in which they often put them at risk of microaggressions, harassment, and violence (Porta et al., 2017). All students must be able to access facilities that align with their gender identity; however, because this also reinforces gender as a binary and may still put students at risk of harassment, schools should create accessible all gender restrooms and locker rooms. Access to these facilities contributes to a safe and affirming school for LGBTQ+ students. School social workers can support these efforts by providing education and resources to administrators and staff and assisting student led efforts striving for change whether in regards to bathrooms or another issue they find most important for their school community.

Finally, school social workers can advocate for the development and implementation of LGBTQ+ inclusive curriculum. Only California, Colorado, Maryland, New Jersey, Illinois, and Oregon require the inclusion of LGBTQ+ history in the curriculum and there have been barriers to successful implementation (Waxman, 2019). Conversely, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississipi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Texas have laws commonly referred to as “no promo homo” laws that prohibit the “promotion” of homosexuality and discussion of LGBTQ+ issues in schools (Lambda Legal). Only 29 states and the District of Columbia (DC) mandate sex educaiton, and only 10 of those and DC require education inclusive of sexual orientation (Guttmacher Institute, 2020). School social workers can advocate for change within individual schools, with the school board, and at the state and federal government. All school social workers, especially those practicing in states that do not provide LGBTQ+ inclusive curriculum, can educate themselves in order to be ready to continue or supplement the information students are getting in the classroom as well as making print and electronic resources known to the school community.

Targeted Interventions

Tier II interventions are more focused, and frequent and are provided in addition to the Tier I interventions to those who could benefit from additional support. All school staff can support LGBTQ+ students by intervening when they hear transphobic, homophobic, sexist, racist, ableist and other offensive language. Some interactions and language can be addressed right away as a teachable moment; however, others require more intensive intervention and support. Restorative practices can be utilized when addressing instances of harassment or bullying in lieu of zero tolerance punishment. Approaching conflict with a variety of restorative practices is part of the work to disrupt the disproportionality of exclusionary discipline experienced by students of color (Winder, 2018). It also provides students an opportunity to learn about the institutional causes and impacts of homophobia and transphobia and further externalize the “problems” being experienced in schools.

Genders and Sexualities Alliance clubs (GSAs) are school-based groups that provide LGBTQ+ students and their allies a social and activist space. The GSA Network provides guidance and toolkits on how to start or support a group as well as ways to host school wide events, such as the GSA Day for Racial Justice. GSAs contribute to the creation of positive and affirming school culture and climate as well as act as a mitigating factor for the negative occurrences experienced by LGBTQ+ students (Kosciw et al., 2012). These groups offer students an opportunity to become student leaders, build community, and advocate for change within their local communities.

Intensive Interventions

Finally, Tier III supports are intensive individualized and comprehensive interventions. School social workers support all members of the school community and have numerous responsibilities and external expectations placed upon them. They are not able to provide all of the intensive, 1:1 services that students need in their schools. Creating, developing, and sustaining partnerships with LGBTQ+ affirming community based organizations (CBOs) allows school social workers to connect students to affirming and culturally responsive supports both on campus and in the community. School social workers can research and reach out to these organizations for support in development of classroom curriculum, educating school staff and families, hosting school wide and community events, facilitating groups, and providing LGBTQ+ affirming individual case management and mental health services.


Practices and interventions designed to support LGBTQ+ students actually support all students because they challenge binaries that restrict students and create an environment that fosters sexism, homophobia, and transphobia. School social workers play a vital role in coordinating, collaborating, and empowering students, families, school staff, and community members in developing and implementing universal, targeted, and intensive support. Students who attend schools with GSAs, inclusive curriculum, supportive school staff, and harassment policies that specifically protect sexual orientation and gender expression and identity were less likely to hear derogatory remarks, less likely to feel unsafe at school, and have a greater sense of school belonging (Kosciw et al., 2018). By working to implement these supports, school social workers create an educational environment that positively impacts academic, social, and emotional success.


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