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PLAYGROUNDS AND PREJUDICE: Elementary School Climate in the United States (2012)

A Survey of Students and Teachers

SURVEY METHOD

Harris Interactive, Inc. conducted a survey of elementary school students and elementary school teachers on behalf of GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network). A national sample of 1,065 elementary school students in 3rd to 6th grade and 1,099 elementary school teachers of Kindergarten to 6th grade participated in the online survey. The sample was drawn primarily from the Harris Poll Online (HPOL) opt‐in panel. The survey was conducted during November and December 2010.

KEY FINDINGS

Elementary school students and teachers report that biased remarks are regularly used by students at their schools. The most commonly heard negative remarks from students in elementary schools are insults toward intellectual ability and using the word 'gay' in a negative way.

  • Half of students (51%) say that students at their school make comments such as "retard" or "spaz" sometimes, often or all the time. Slightly less than half of teachers (45%) report hearing students make comments like "spaz" or "retard" sometimes, often or very often.
  • About half of students (45%) report that they hear comments like "that's so gay" or "you're so gay" from other kids at school sometimes, often or all the time. Half of teachers (49%) say they hear students in their school use the word "gay" in a negative way sometimes, often or very often.

Sexist language and remarks about gender stereotypes are commonly heard in elementary schools.

  • Four in ten students (39%) say they hear other kids at their school say there are things that boys should not do or should not wear because they are boys at least sometimes. One third of students (33%) say they hear other kids at their school say there are things that girls should not do or should not wear because they are girls at least sometimes.
  • Half of teachers (48%) report that they hear students make sexist remarks at least sometimes at their school.

Although they are less common, homophobic remarks and negative remarks about race/ethnicity and religion are heard by a sizable number of elementary school students and teachers.

  • One quarter of students (26%) and teachers (26%) report hearing other students make comments like "fag" or "lesbo" at least sometimes.
  • One in four students (26%) and 1 in 5 teachers (21%) hear students say bad or mean things about people because of their race or ethnic background at least sometimes.
  • One in ten students (10%) and less than a tenth of teachers (7%) hear other students say bad or mean things about people because of their religion at least sometimes.
BULLYING AND SCHOOL SAFETY

Most elementary school students report that students at their school are bullied or called names at least sometimes at their school, and half of elementary school teachers consider bullying and name calling to be a serious problem at their school.

  • Three quarters (75%) of elementary school students report that students at their school are called names, made fun of or bullied with at least some regularity (i.e., all the time, often or sometimes).
  • Nearly one half of elementary school teachers believe that bullying, name‐calling or harassment is a very or somewhat serious problem at their school (47%).

Although a majority of elementary school students feel very safe at school, bullying and name‐calling are experienced by a sizable number of students. Students who are bullied regularly at school report lower grades and a lower quality of life than other students.

  • Slightly more than half (59%) of elementary school students say they feel very safe at school.
  • Over one third (36%) of elementary school students say they have been called names, made fun of or bullied at least sometimes this year at school.
  • Students who are bullied at least sometimes are less likely than others to say that they get good grades (57% vs. 71%) and that they've been happy at school this year (34% vs. 69%).
  • Students who are bullied at least sometimes are four times as likely as other students to say that they sometimes do not want to go to school because they feel afraid or unsafe there (33% vs. 8%).
  • Students who are bullied at least sometimes are less likely than others to say that they get along with their parents (61% vs. 75%) and that they have a lot of friends (33% vs. 57%).
  • Students who are bullied at least sometimes are three times as likely as others to say they often feel stressed (15% vs. 4%).

The most common reason for being bullied or called names, as well as feeling unsafe at school, is physical appearance.

  • Two thirds of students attribute the bullying and name‐calling that they witness at school to students' appearance or body size (67%). Students are next most likely to attribute the bullying and name‐calling to not being good at sports (37%), how well they do at schoolwork (26%) and being a boy who acts or looks "too much like a girl" or a girl who acts or looks "too much like a boy" (23%).
  • Seven in ten teachers say that students in their school are very often, often or sometimes bullied, called names or harassed because of the way they look or their body size (70%).

Teachers are also likely to report that students in their school are frequently bullied, called names or harassed because of their ability at school (60%), they have a disability (39%), their family does not have a lot of money (37%), they are a boy who acts or looks "too much like a girl" (37%) or their race/ethnicity (35%).

  • The number one reason among all students for personally feeling unsafe or afraid at school, cited by one in seven students (16%), is personal appearance.

Students who do not conform to traditional gender norms are more likely than other students to experience incidents of bullying or name‐calling school and to feel less safe at school.

  • Almost one in ten of elementary school students (8%) report that they do not conform to traditional gender norms – i.e., boys who others sometimes think act or look like a girl, or they are girls who others sometimes think act or look like a boy.
  • Students who do not conform to traditional gender norms are more likely than others to say they are called names, made fun of or bullied at least sometimes at school (56% vs. 33%).
  • Students who do not conform to traditional gender norms are twice as likely as other students to say that other kids at school have spread mean rumors or lies about them (43% vs. 20%) and three times as likely to report that another kid at school has used the internet to call them names, make fun of them or post mean things about them (7% vs. 2%).
  • Students who do not conform to traditional gender norms are less likely than other students to feel very safe at school (42% vs. 61%) and are more likely than others to agree that they sometimes do not want to go to school because they feel unsafe or afraid there (35% vs. 15%).

Students in public schools and schools in urban areas are more likely to go to schools where students are bullied or called names, and to be bullied or called names and feel less safe at school themselves.

  • Public school students are more likely than private or parochial school students say that bullying occurs all the time or often at their school (27% vs. 9%).
  • Public school students are less likely than private or parochial school students to say they feel very safe at school (58% vs. 79%).
TEACHERS' BELIEFS AND PRACTICES

Less than half of teachers believe that students who do not conform to traditional gender norms would feel comfortable at the school where they teach.

  • Over eight in ten teachers (83%) agree that teachers and other school personnel have an obligation to ensure a safe and supportive learning environment for students who do not conform to traditional gender norms.
  • The majority of teachers report that school‐level staff would be supportive of efforts that specifically address issues of gender roles, gender stereotypes and non‐traditional gender expression, including other teachers (61%), administrators in their school (59%) and other school staff (56%). Fewer teachers report that district‐level administration (47%), the school board (46%), parents (46%) or the PTA or PTO (41%) would be supportive.

Elementary school teachers report high levels of comfort in addressing and taking action in situations of name‐calling, bullying or harassment of students in a range of situations.

  • Eight in ten teachers (81%) would feel comfortable addressing name‐calling, bullying or harassment of students because a student is or is believed to be gay, lesbian or bisexual.
  • Eight in ten teachers (81%) would feel comfortable addressing name‐calling, bullying or harassment of students because they do not conform to traditional gender roles.
  • A majority of teachers say that they very often or often address the situation when students make homophobic remarks (66%) or use the word "gay" in a negative way (68%).
  • A majority of teachers say that they very often or often address the situation when students make comments about a male acting or looking "too feminine" (63%) or a female acting or looking "too masculine" (59%), or make sexist remarks (67%).
  • A majority of teachers say that they very often or often address the situation when students make racist remarks (72%) or comments like "spaz" or "retard" (67%).

Nearly half of elementary school teachers are comfortable responding to questions from their students about lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) people.

  • Just less than half of teachers (48%) would feel comfortable responding to questions from their students about gay, lesbian or bisexual people. The other half say they would feel uncomfortable (26%) or neither comfortable nor uncomfortable (25%).
  • Four in ten teachers (41%) would feel comfortable responding to questions from their students about transgender people. The majority say they would feel uncomfortable (34%) or neither comfortable nor uncomfortable (24%).

Elementary teachers seldom receive professional development on lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) families or gender issues. A sizable minority of teachers believe they need further professional development on these issues.

  • Although a large majority of teachers have received professional development on diversity or multicultural issues (85%), this education is unlikely to include content about LGBT families or gender issues. Just over a third of teachers (37%) have ever received professional development on gender issues. Only a quarter (23%) have received professional development on families with LGBT parents.
  • One in three teachers believe they need further professional development on addressing homophobic name‐calling, bullying and harassment (30%) and working with LGBT families (29%). Nearly a quarter believe they need further professional development on working with students who do not conform to traditional gender norms (23%) and on gender issues in general (23%).
CONCLUSION

It is clear that an approach that fosters respect and values diversity even before bullying occurs, in addition to addressing bullying as it happens, would be welcomed by elementary school teachers who are eager to learn more about creating safe and supportive environments. Ensuring that all students and families are respected and valued in elementary school would not only provide a more positive learning environment for younger students, but would also lay the groundwork for safe and affirming middle and high schools.


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