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85 FEBRUARY 2006
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School practitioners supporting LGBTQ students

Michael Bochenek

With the average age dropping at which a youth identifies himself or herself as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, school practitioners may find themselves confronting issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity with students who have not reached secondary school. To prepare themselves to address the needs of LGBTQ students, school practitioners should seek specialized training and resources on the issues faced by this population, and school districts should support practitioners' efforts to prepare themselves to address issues relating to sexual orientation and gender identity. Practitioners should also be mindful that confidentiality is critical for students grappling with issues of sexual orientation or gender identity and social stigmatization, harassment, and violence.

School counsellors and LGBT students

“They’re here. They’re queer. They’re thirteen,” a recent issue of Nerve magazine announced (D'Erasmo, 2000, p. 100). Studies confirm that youth are “coming out” – identifying themselves as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) – at younger ages (Fergusson, Horwood, & Beautrais, 1999; Garofalo, Wolf, Kessel, Palfrey, & DuRant, 1998; Herdt & Boxer, 1996; Remafedi, Resnick, Blum, & Harris, 1992). “The world, schools, and businesses will have to adapt,” said one 16-year-old student in Dallas. “They can’t keep things the way they were and expect us to conform” (interview, March 27, 2000).

As the first school officials to whom students may turn for information on issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity, counsellors and Child and Youth Care practitioners working in schools have a special role in providing support to LGBT and questioning youth. In some cases, LGBT youth have credited their school counsellors with providing them with guidance and support at critical points in their lives.

Unfortunately, too many youth hear misinformation and perceive bias from their school counsellors. In large part, the failure of many counsellors to serve LGBT youth stems from a lack of training.

Even when practitioners are prepared to address the needs of these youth, many students will not approach them for information on LGBT issues unless they understand that their conversations are confidential. Confidentiality is an important aspect of any counselling relationship, mandated by the ethical codes of the American School Counselor Association, the American Counseling Association, the Council of Canadian Child and Youth Care Associations, the National Board for Certified Counsellors, and other professional associations (American Counseling Association, 2000a; American School Counselor Association, 1999a; Child and Youth Care Association of Alberta, 2002; Child and Youth Care Workers Association of Manitoba, 1988; National Board for Certified Counselors, 1997). For youth grappling with issues of sexual orientation or gender identity and social stigmatization, harassment, and violence, confidentiality is critical. Counsellors should always advise students of the parameters of counsellor-student confidentiality. When counsellors disclose a student’s sexual orientation to his or her parents without the student’s permission, they violate professional standards and potentially place the youth at risk of rejection, abandonment, or violence by parents or guardians or local communities.

The climate of harrassment

In 1999 and 2000, Human Rights Watch interviewed 150 LGBT youth in seven U.S. states for a report on violence and discrimination in U.S. high schools (Bochenek & Brown, 2001). Many of these youth said they realized their sexual orientation or gender identity in elementary school or early high school. “I knew when I was 13,” said Casey G., a student in Los Angeles. “I knew when I was 8,” Jerome B., another Los Angeles student, said. “I realized in first grade,” said Payton R. (interviews, January 20, 2000; October 21, 1999).

LGBT youth are often disclosing their sexual orientation or gender identity to their peers, teachers, school counsellors, and families during this time. When she was 12, Gina T. told her Houston classmates that she was a lesbian (interview, March 17, 2000). Jobey L., a 12-year-old in Austin, Texas, described one of his seventh-grade classmates as “really, really gay – completely out” (interview, March 15, 2000). Erin B., an eighth-grade student in DeKalb County, Georgia, started to tell her friends that she was a lesbian when she was in the sixth grade (interview, March 2, 2000).

Some students are able to find acceptance in their schools, particularly from their peers. Discussing the decision she made at the end of the tenth grade to be open about her sexual orientation, Andy J., a 17-year-old in Texas, said, “I think the teachers care about it more than the students” (interview, March 15, 2000). “The kids are really open,” Eric C. said of a San Francisco high school he attended. “All of the gay students there were really open with themselves, and there were a lot of gay kids there. The straight kids don’t see the gay kids as a problem. Like, in my leadership class I talked about some problems I was having with my boyfriend. The other kids just acted as if it was completely normal” (interview, January 27, 2000).

The vast majority of students are not so fortunate. LGBT youth are nearly three times as likely as their heterosexual peers to have been assaulted or involved in at least one physical fight in school, three times as likely to have been threatened or injured with a weapon at school, and nearly four times as likely to skip school because they felt unsafe, according to the 1999 Massachusetts Youth Risk Behavior Survey (Massachusetts Department of Education, 2000). As Human Rights Watch documents, many youth are targeted for harassment and violence by their peers because of their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity; in many instances, teachers, administrators, and other staff fail to protect them from such harassment (Bochenek & Brown, 2001).

Discrimination, harassment, and violence take a tremendous toll on youth. “It weighs on you like a ton of bricks,” explained Lavonn G., a 17year-old in Austin (interview, Mar. 23, 2000). Beth G., in Boston, recounted that she had suffered several months of repeated verbal threats and other harassment. “I realized it’s affecting me at school; it’s pushing me out of classes,” she said (interview, May 8, 2000).

Perhaps because many experience such abuses on a daily basis, LGBT youth are more likely than their heterosexual peers to use alcohol or other drugs, engage in risky sexual behaviours, or run away from home (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2000; DuRant, Krowchuk, & Sina1,1998; Mallon,1998). In addition, researchers in Canada and the United States have found that although most LGBT youth never consider or attempt suicide, a disproportionate number do (Dorais, 2000; Garofalo, Wolf, Wissow, Woods, & Goodman, 1999; Remafedi, French, Story, Resnick, & Blum, 1998).

The value of supportive counsellors

"Unlike their heterosexual peers, lesbian and gay adolescents are the only social minority who must learn to manage a stigmatized identity without active support and modeling from parents and family,” Ryan and Futterman (1997, p. 213) note. School counsellors and Child and Youth Care practitioners in schools are well positioned to help youth who are coping with social stigma, feelings of isolation, and the effects of harassment.

Several youth said that they greatly appreciated the support of their school counsellors. “We do have really good counsellors,” said Jenna L, a student in Orange County, California. “My counsellor is great. I couldn’t ask for somebody more supportive.” She noted that a district superintendent’s order in her school district resulted in training on LGBT issues for all counsellors (interview, October 21, 1999).

Similarly, Austin student Kimberly G. said that she had often talked to her counsellor about being a lesbian in high school. “I had a great counsellor; he was always there for me,” she said (interview, March 15, 2000).

Andy S. said that she learned about Out Youth, an Austin group for LGBT youth, from her counsellor. “I was going to the counsellor lady. That’s not why I was going, but that subject came up, that I was gay, and she gave me a pamphlet” (interview, March 15, 2000).

Asked what LGBT students need, Kimberly G. replied, “Good counselling. There should definitely be more counsellors” (interview, March 15, 2000).

Misinformation and bias

Many more youth spoke about negative experiences with school counsellors. “A lot try to be very understanding, but most have kids of their own and when you tell them they freak out,” Dahlia P., another Austin student, observed. “They don’t want their own kids exposed to gay people” (interview, March 15, 2000). When Dempsey H. went to talk to one of his school counsellors about the issues he faced as a gay youth in the Texas panhandle, he reported, “She told me she was biased and could no longer speak to me on this topic” (interview, March 21, 2000). Philip G. recounted that when he asked teachers at his Los Angeles school to make donations so that students could attend a youth lobby day in Sacramento, a guidance counsellor replied, “I’m not going to donate to that. Is it for that gay thing?” (interview, October 20, 1999). In fact, a 1992 study of school counsellors found that two out of three of those surveyed had negative attitudes about gay and lesbian youth (Sears, 1992).

The need for training

In particular, youth expressed concerns about the training their counsellors received on LGBT issues. Erin B. remarked of her school’s counsellors, “They seem to be nice, but a lot aren’t educated on gay issues. Once I went in to get advice about a friend of mine who was taking pills. Everything turned into about me being gay. I got no advice about my friend. That made me mad” (interview, March 2, 2000).

Our interviews with counsellors confirmed that students” concerns were well-founded. “I haven’t found a way to ask if sexual orientation is an issue,” said one counsellor in Georgia, who is gay himself. He explained, “I don’t do a lot of pushing. If they need help, I get them the help they need. Let the professional deal with it” (interview, December 14, 1999).

When Manny V. went to speak to a school counsellor in Los Angeles about the isolation and depression he felt, he reported that he left with his needs unaddressed:

Here if you ask for a counsellor, they’ll send in a student who’s got some counsellor training. Some of the student counsellors have issues of their own. They’d say things to other students. What you tell them would leak out. When I went to talk with the student counsellor, she didn’t say much. She just shrugged her shoulders and acted supportive. Finally I asked if I could call in a friend of mine to talk to instead. I asked to see the school psychologist. I never got an appointment. I was not helped out at all. (interview, October 21, 1999)

"I have heard about kids getting harassed for being gay,” a second counsellor in Georgia said. “This came to the attention of another counsellor. The student was harassed because he was effeminate. In fact, the counsellor thought he was a girl at first. The counsellor didn’t deal with the issue in the best way. She changed his schedule after talking with the other students, when the abuse continued. To me, that’s punishing the kid” (interview, December 14, 1999).

As a result, it is not surprising that the 1992 study of school counsellors also found that most lesbian, gay, and bisexual students saw their counsellors as ill-informed, unconcerned, and uncomfortable with talking to them about their sexual orientation (Sears, 1992). Such impressions are reinforced by the fact that many students report that school counsellors provide them only with career planning assistance rather than comprehensive school counselling. The American School Counselor Association defines the school counsellor’s role as including the development of “comprehensive school counseling programs that promote and enhance student learning.” It notes that school counsellors “are specialists in human behaviour and relationships who provide assistance to students” by, among other means, meeting with students “individually and in small groups to help them resolve and cope constructively with their problems and developmental concerns” (American School Counselor Association, 1999b, para. 5).

In recognition of the fact that school counsellors can be an important source of support for LGBT youth, the American School Health Association recommends that “every school district should provide access to professional counseling by specially trained personnel for students who may be concerned about sexual orientation” (American School Health Association, 1998, para. 5). Providing such support begins with an awareness by counsellors of the language they use. For example, “the assumption must not be made that males only date females or that sexual feelings only happen across gender,” note Reynolds and Koski (1993/94, p. 90).

More generally, counsellors should be familiar with the issues their LGBT students face and be able to refer them to appropriate resources (American Psychological Association, 2001). “We need to have educational programs on diversity and sexuality,” said Dempsey H. “I think all counsellors should have to go through that kind of workshop to let them know what it is. It’s a sexuality, not just something we’re doing to get attention” (interview, March 21, 2000).

“What would help?” Eric C., a San Francisco student, pondered. “I don’t really know. You can’t tell all gay students to come out until you have better resources, counsellors. ... Counsellors need to be able to tell them where they can go for help. Where to go to meet people just like them” (interview, January 27, 2000).

As a counsellor at San Francisco’s Lavender Youth Recreation and Information Center emphasized, training should include a component directed at the needs of transgender youth. “We need even more sociological training dealing with young trans people, the issues young trans people are going to face. issues that come up for young trans people include depression and suicide based on feeling like you’re one way yet physically being another” (interview, January 28, 2000).

And because youth are grappling with issues of sexual orientation and gender identity in the fourth or fifth grade, elementary school counsellors must be prepared to address these issues in age-appropriate ways. “Some of us realize that we’re gay in elementary school, but we don’t get the information we need until high school,” said Philip G., a Los Angeles student (interview, October 18, 1999).

"Having someone at school to talk to would really help,” said Javier R., a student in New Jersey. “Maybe a special counsellor” (interview, October 31, 1999). Similarly, Sabrina L., in Los Angeles, said, “We need them to be proactive. we’re not given the resources and information we need” (interview, October 18, 1999). Eric C. explained that he needed more than what he could get from a peer support group. “I wanted to talk to a professional, but I didn’t see anybody like that” at the youth group he attended. “I wanted to talk to somebody who knows what they’re doing, somebody who doesn’t just fluke things out” (interview, January 27, 2000).

But schools should recognize that some students will not be willing to approach their counsellors for information about sexual orientation or gender identity. Noting that his school has a peer hotline, Dempsey H. suggested, “I think all schools should have those. Students may not feel comfortable going to the school counsellor and saying they’re gay” (interview, March 21, 2000).

The importance of confidentiality

“Confidentiality is critical in clinical work with sexual minority youth and their parents and families,” write Bahr, Brish, and Croteau, noting that “confidentiality has a seminal role in assisting these individuals in accessing support through counseling relationships with school staff or an eventual referral to a community resource” (2000, p. 222).

All schools should establish and implement policies providing confidentiality in discussions between counsellors and students. Counsellors should always advise students of the existence of counsellor-student confidential ity and its limits. Counsellors should refer to the ethical standards of the American School Counselor Association, the American Counseling Association, the National Board for Certified Counselors, and the National Association of Social Workers for authoritative guidance in determining when confidentiality should be breached. In those limited cases in which confidentiality cannot be maintained, counsellors should take care to ensure that they disclose only the minimum that is necessary to protect the youth or others.

Ethical obligations

As Ryan and Futterman note, “Virtually every health profession is bound by a code of ethics that mandates client confidentiality, which is also governed by state medical records laws, federal funding statutes, and the right to privacy” (1997, p. 240).

The American School Counselor Association recognizes that students have “the right to privacy and confidentiality,” which “must not be abridged by the counsellor except where there is clear and present danger to the stu defit and/or other persons” (American School Counselor Association, 1999a, para. 1), an obligation that is restated in the association's ethical code (American School Counselor Association, 1998, section A.2). The ethical codes of the American Counseling Association and the National Board for Certified Counsellors contain similar guarantees of confidentiality (American Counseling Association, 2000a, 2000b; National Board for Certified Counselors, 1997).

School counsellors may be social workers, psychologists, or members of other professions with their own ethical obligations. For example, the U.S.based National Association of Social Workers” Standards for the Practice of Social Work with Adolescents calls upon social workers to maintain confidentiality in their professional relationship with youth (National Association of Social Workers, 1993).

And the U.S.-based National Education Association (NEA) calls on all of its members, whether or not they are counsellors, to refrain from disclosing “information about students obtained in the course of professional serv ice unless disclosure serves a compelling professional purpose or is required by law” (National Education Association, 1975, para. I-8). With regard to students who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender or who are questioning their sexual orientation or gender identity, the NEA recommends that school personnel “[r]espect the confidentiality of students who confide the fact or suspicion of their homosexual orientation or who ask for assistance in this matter” (National Education Association, 1994, p. 1).

Youth are often not aware that they have the right to expect confidentiality from health professionals. A 1993 study of high school students in Massachusetts found, for example, that over half had never discussed confidentiality with their health providers; two-thirds did not know that they had the right to confidential care (Cheng, Savageau, Sattler, & De Witt,1993). The right to confidentiality varies from profession to profession and from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. In particular, many U.S. states have “duty to warn” provisions that require health professionals to notify others when a client is at risk of harming himself or herself or others. In addition, nearly every Canadian and U.S. jurisdiction has mandatory reporting provisions for child abuse, though these provision are usually limited to abuse by parents or guardians (Renke, 1999).

The need to protect youth from harm to themselves while maintaining confidentiality may present dilemmas for counsellors. A Georgia counsellor described one such case to us. “I had a ninth grader, he admitted some suicide ideation to me. He said, “The kids are calling me a wimp and some other things I can’t say. I explained that we’d have to call his dad and take him in for an assessment. You have to call the family in every case. The protocol calls for preventive intervention, some immediate intervention” (interview, Dec. 14, 1999).

Outing students

At times, counsellors have not only failed to discuss confidentiality with students but have also disclosed their sexual orientation to their parents. Gail Goodman, executive director of Out Youth in Austin, described one case:

I took a call from one 16-year-old who came out to his counsellor. The only other person he’d told was his friend in California. The counsellor said, “I can’t help you with that.” After he left, the counsellor called his mother to make sure she knew. The youth went home that night not knowing that he’d been outed to his parents. Sitting around the dinner table, his mother said to him, “I got a call from the school counsellor today. we’re not going to have any gay kids in this family.” His father took him outside and beat him up. People at the school found out and started harassing him. He became suicidal. Ultimately he was able to move in with a family in [a different city] and finish school there.

Goodman notes, “School counselling is my background. As a mental health professional, you have a duty to your client. You don’t out a kid no matter what the school policy says” (interview, March 14, 2000).

“Confidentiality needs to be heavily touched on for those working with trans youth. I’ve known people who were outed by counsellors or teachers, those who they go to for support. they've been outed to the rest of the school community,” a San Francisco peer counsellor said. “It means that gender issues become the defining factor of who they are among their peers in school. Suddenly they’re walking around and everybody knows them as “oh, that transsexual person ...” (interview, January 28, 2000).

The practice of “outing” students to their parents or guardians runs counler to the recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which advises that “[t]he gay or lesbian adolescent should be allowed to decide when and to whom to disclose his/her sexual identity” (American Academy of Pediatrics, 1993, p. 631). Disclosure under these circumstances also violates the ethical codes of the American School Counselor Association, the American Counseling Association, the National Board for Certified Counselors, and the National Association for Social Workers, all of which require confidentiality to be preserved unless disclosure is required to prevent “clear and imminent danger” or a similar level of harm.

In the case Goodman describes, disclosure of the student’s sexual orientation was not only unnecessary to protect the student or others from any clear, imminent danger, it also put the youth at risk of harm. Ryan and Futterman advise:

Providers should be aware that the decision to disclose one’s lesbian or gay identity, particularly to parents, may have long-term consequences. Most adolescents are dependent on parents for financial and emotional support. Although coming out can reduce stress and increase communication and intimacy in relationships, disclosure during adolescence may result in abandonment, rejection, or violence when parents abruptly learn or discover that their child is lesbian or gay. (Ryan & Futterman, 1997, p. 220)

In addition, such actions violate the youth’s basic right to privacy. “It’s not like you can tell one person and have them keep it a secret,” Dahlia P. notes. “I told a few and then everybody found out” (interview, March 15, 2000).

Confidentiality is particularly important for youth who are the victims of assault, including sexual abuse and hate crimes. “Family and peer support are important resources for recovering from trauma; in many cases, an adolescent victim may not have “come out” previously to parents or peers,” caution Ryan and Futterman. “Parents may react to the assault with anger and “blame the victim” if the adolescent’s sexual orientation is initially disclosed as a result of the incident” (Ryan & Futterman, 1997, p. 249).


Counsellors and Child and Youth Care practitioners in schools are in a position to provide LGBT students with valuable support and guidance. To assist them to be a resource for LGBT and questioning youth, school districts should provide specialized training for school counsellors on issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity. Schools should also ensure that students may approach these practitioners for confidential information or advice. Reflecting the importance of confidentiality, school policies should include a prohibition on disclosing students' sexual orientation or gender identity to their classmates, parents or guardians, or local communities.


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This feature: Bochenek, M. (2002) School practitioners supporting LGBTQ students. Journal of Child and Youth Care, 15 (3), PP.69-80

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