Study finds that supportive strategies linked to decreased homophobic bullying

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Photo Credit: Sierra Garcia | Daily Texan Staff

When dealing with homophobic bullies, a less punishment-based approach may yield better results.

In a study published in Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity, researchers at UT and California State University, Monterey Bay found that supportive, rather than punitive, strategies more effectively combated homophobic bullying. The findings have implications for how policymakers can better deter bullying and foster a more favorable school atmosphere.

Students who identify as or are perceived as LGBT suffer from bullying at high rates, with around 85 percent reporting being bullied for their sexual orientation or gender identity, according to a survey by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. Previous studies have highlighted the effects of homophobic bullying, which include decreased academic performance and negative mental and physical health outcomes. 

“Most who face this type of bullying are going to feel unsafe in school, which has implications for their academic success, learning and well-being,” said Shannon Snapp, assistant professor of psychology at California State University, Monterey Bay and co-author of the paper. “Their well-being is also compromised as bullying is associated with depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and we know that many consider suicide because of bullying.”

Researchers, including Stephen Russell, UT professor of human development and family science and sociology and co-author of the study, analyzed data from surveys taken by high school students in California and examined the relationship between students’ experiences and how teachers addressed bullying. 

The study divided teachers’ approaches to bullying into two categories: Punitive or supportive. Punitive strategies included zero-tolerance practices and immediate suspension or expulsion to deter poor behavior. Supportive strategies emphasized helping students with emotional or social problems and included methods such as counseling.

According to the study, schools with teachers that practice supportive strategies have decreased rates of homophobic bullying. Additionally, Russell said supportive strategies were linked to a higher degree of school connectedness. 

“The education world focuses a lot on school connectedness, the idea being that if students feel a part of their school — safe at school, like they want to go to school — they’re more likely to learn,” Russell said. “They’re more likely to have an academic identity and see themselves as part of the school community.”

Currently, federal protections for LGBT students do not exist, Russell said. According to Snapp, the Senate has failed to pass non-discrimination laws, such as the Student Non-Discrimination Act, which failed in 2010 and was reintroduced in 2015 but has not been voted on. These findings have important implications for how schools and other institutions develop policies against homophobic bullying, according to the study. 

“Federally speaking, but also in Texas, we don’t have anti-discrimination or non-bullying policies in education that include sexual orientation and gender identity,” Russell said. “If we had non-discrimination protection in schools in Texas, that would be a foundation in the educational policy world.”

Russell said it would also be advantageous to school environments for policy-makers to discourage zero-tolerance and punitive practices and to instead promote restorative justice practices. Additionally, LGBT students who are also ethnic minorities generally experienced more homophobic bullying, prompting discussions on the complexities behind bias-based bullying.

Snapp said that homophobic bullying interventions should help students support bullying victims and examine their own prejudices against other LGBT students.

“When homophobic bullying occurs, everyone suffers,” Snapp said. “It not only adversely affects the young person who was bullied, but it reinforces heteronormativity and strict gender scripts for all students.”