Although the 2007 school-climate survey released by the advocacy group Iowa Pride Network doesn't reflect the impact of mandates made by the Iowa Legislature last year, IPN Director Ryan Roemerman said there is evidence that just the open conversations leading up to those changes made a difference in the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered youth across the state.
"We did see some improvement from 2005 to 2007," Roemerman said. "One of the reasons for that was the fact that we had the discussions going in the state about the need to protect LGBT students and help them have a successful future. I think because of that, students are reporting that they are talking to their teachers more about LGBT issues, that they felt more comfortable having those conversations. There was also a 10 percent increase in students reporting that when they did speak with teachers, it was a positive experience. We found that students feel resources and support systems in schools are getting stronger."
The organization's first school-climate survey was completed in 2005. At that time, the survey indicated that a majority of Iowa schools were failing in relation to providing a safe learning experience for LGBT students. The discovery that over 60 percent of the state's LGBT youth reported not feeling safe at school because of violence and harassment linked to their sexual orientation was combined with other survey findings to prove to lawmakers that the plight of gay and lesbian students in Iowa was something that had to be addressed.
"As an organization serving high school and college LGBT youth, we really wanted to know what the students were experiencing," Roemerman said. "Also, when we began to speak with legislators about the need for safe-school policies, we were getting feedback that LGBT students didn't exist in Iowa, that this was a West or East Coast problem. All the data that we really had at that time was from the coasts or from other parts of the nation. There had never been an Iowa school-climate survey. We set out to do so, and, of course, the results were very disheartening."
The data from the 2005 survey was one of the things that prompted lawmakers to make changes last year to both the Iowa Civil Rights Act and school anti-bullying policies to include references to sexual orientation and gender identity. While IPN's 2007 survey wasn't completed in time to reflect the full impact of the changes, many of the gathered statistics point to improving conditions for gay and lesbian students.
In the 2005 survey, 33.6 percent of Iowa LGBT students reported some incident of physical harassment, such as being pushed or shoved, because of their sexual orientation. In addition, nearly 18 percent of students two years ago reported some incident of physical assault, such as being punched, kicked or injured with a weapon, because of their sexual orientation or gender expression. In 2007, students reporting physical harassment rose slightly to 36 percent of all respondents, but the incident of physical assault dropped to 16 percent.
Anti-harassment and non-discrimination policies with enumerated categories such as "sexual orientation" and "gender identity" do work to end bullying, harassment and discrimination in schools, according to survey findings. In schools with inclusive policies, students were three times more likely to report never being verbally harassed. Students have also found support through gay-straight alliance organizations. Students who have such organizations in their schools report decreased absenteeism as well as lower rates of name-calling, harassment and assault.
Despite the gains, the IPN director says, Iowa's LGBT students continue to feel unsafe in school and face verbal and physical harassment or assault daily. Nine out of ten students, or 91 percent of those completing the 2007 survey, reported hearing homophobic remarks frequently in their schools.
"There has definitely been some progress made in certain areas," Roemerman said. "The areas I would highlight would be the change in LGBT resources and support. That has been a key improvement area. Also, there has been a positive change in relation to the incident of homophobic remarks in which other students intervene on behalf of other students. Some of the negatives are, of course, safety — a lot of students are still not feeling safe at school — and there are still teachers who are not intervening. Those are some things that need improvement.
"While there has been some positive change, there's still more to go and, in 2009, we are going to be checking to make sure that things are continuing to move in this positive direction and that the laws are working. These two surveys — 2005 and 2007 — have provided the Iowa Pride Network with the baseline data so that we can know whether or not the changes that have been made are working on behalf of Iowa students."