LGBTQ Youth Suicide Prevention Program Will Continue At San Francisco Schools Amid Staggering Statistics

06/06/2013 04:57 pm ET | Updated Jun 08, 2013
  • Aaron Sankin Assistant San Francisco Editor, The Huffington Post
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Each year, one out of every three gay, lesbian or bisexual students in the San Francisco Unified School District reportedly attempts suicide. For transgender students, that number jumps to nearly one in two.

These statistics were captured in a 2011 survey of nearly 5,000 SFUSD middle and high school students developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and have inspired an aggressive anti-suicide campaign in San Francisco schools.

"The numbers about suicides are the final statistics in a series of statistics that start with lack of safety," said Jodi Schwartz, executive director of the Lavender Youth Recreation and Information Center, an organization that supports LGBTQ youth.

In an ongoing effort to improve these statistics, LYRIC plans to continue a program it started in 2011 in a handful of SFUSD schools, the organization will announce in a press conference Thursday. The in-school program will start up again in the fall at two middle schools and one high school, and will include a social justice class, support groups for families, and trainings for teachers on how to effectively intervene in situations involving LGBTQ youth.

Schwartz noted that offering a class during the school day is a crucial element of the program's success because similar initiatives, such as ones by the Gay-Straight Alliance, are typically held after school and often require parental permission.

"You already have to be out, or out as an ally, and you have to have parents that are okay with that," she said. "We wanted to change that and have students who are part of this dialogue to be part of the regular school day, and those youth who were queer or questioning to be able to go to a class and not have to ask a parent to be there."

The survey on SFUSD students found that 11 percent of the district's high school students self-identified as LGBTQ and 1.6 percent identified as transgender.

Across the board, the survey, which will yield a new set of results later this year, found that LGBTQ students experienced far higher rates of being bullied, having their property damaged or getting in a physical fight at school than straight students. Fifty-eight percent of middle school students who identified as transgender reported being threatened or injured with a weapon at school the prior year, whereas only 5 percent of their straight classmates experienced the same.

"If you're not feeling safe at school and you're not feeling supported about who you are, and likely there's complications going on with your family situation ... [you wonder,] 'Where do I fit in this world? I don't fit at home. I don't fit at school, I don't fit into my religious institutions,'" Schwartz said. "When students feel worthless it leads them to despair, depression and suicide attempts."

While the survey was administered at 91 school sites across the country, SFUSD is the only participating school district to include items on sexual orientation and gender identity in both their middle and high school surveys.

"Empowering our students to have thoughtful conversations about gender and sexuality doesn't stop with our youth, nor does it stop with a single community," San Francisco Supervisor David Campos said in a statement. "We--as people invested in how out schools nurture diversity and acceptance--must deliberately join those conversations."

Campos is one of two openly gay San Francisco supervisors who will participate in LYRIC's press conference on Thursday.

On the national level, the suicide risk for gay and lesbian youth is far higher than for straight young people, according to a 2011 study by the Massachusetts-based Suicide Prevention Resource Center. The study also found that gays and lesbians between the ages of 15 and 24 are up to three times more likely to report suicidal thoughts and up to seven times more likely to report having attempted suicide than their straight counterparts.

In recent years, a number of large-scale initiatives, such as the Trevor Project and the It Gets Better Project, have begun efforts to reverse the tide of suicide among LGBTQ young people.

Correction: The article has been amended to clarify that the statistics about suicide and bullying also apply to bisexual youth.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

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