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Elizabethe C. Payne Headshot
Melissa J. Smith Headshot

Shifting the Focus From Individual Bullies and Victims to School "Culture"

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In the United States, the last two years have brought a rapid increase in public attention to the longstanding problem of LGBTQ students' harassment in schools and to the common solutions proposed to address it. This first posting from The Queering Education Research Institute (QuERI) addresses what we see as the limitations of framing "the problem" of in-school LGBTQ harassment within dominant, widely circulating anti-bullying discourses. Through our first few posts, we will offer a critical sociological framework as an alternative way of understanding the issues of LGBTQ student harassment, and propose that school culture and gender policing need to be our objects of inquiry and our focus for change.

Conversations about creating safe schools for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer/questioning (LGBTQ) youth are often narrowly focused on eliminating individual acts of bullying and harassment. Anti-bullying policies and programs are reliant on the belief that the key to reducing school bullying is to create a positive school climate that values caring behaviors. These approaches to bullying intervention are part of a dominant discourse on bullying which reduces peer-to-peer aggression to the "anti-social behavior" of individual students who are seen as having individual (psychological or social) problems or family issues which cause inappropriate, aggressive acts. In other words, bullies and their aggressive behavior and intolerant attitudes are understood as the problem, and success of school interventions is typically evaluated by measuring the frequency of reported bullying behaviors or student perceptions of safety. Using this logic, a decline in reported bullying incidences equals an improved school climate.

While eliminating violent acts is imperative, reducing the concept of a hostile school environment to the acts of individual (troubled) students who can be rehabilitated merely contains and manages the violence, rather than addressing its causes. When the absence of reported bullying functions as the indicator of a safe or inclusive school for LGBTQ students and families, we fail to account for the social processes at work in sustaining the patterns of homophobic bullying and the -- subtle, often unintentional -- ways schools help to sustain these patterns decade after decade, beginning in the early years of schooling.

We want to challenge the taken-for-granted conceptualization of LGBTQ youths' school experiences and argue for a broader understanding that encompasses cultural systems of power -- specifically along lines of gender and sexuality -- that persistently privilege specific groups of youth while marginalizing others. In other words, we need to examine how U.S. culture assumes heterosexuality and traditional gender expressions to be "normal" and "right" and how such values permeate the policies, procedures, and curricula in K-12 schools, making non-traditional gender expressions and sexualities "not normal" and "wrong/bad" or "less than" and thus potential targets.

Shifting the definition of "the problem" in this way demands a different framing of peer-to-peer aggression than that which underlies the dominant bullying discourse. It requires recognition of how patterns of targeting serve the purpose of enforcing strict cultural expectations around gender and sexuality -- and how these cultural expectations are being taught and reinforced by the schools themselves. Further, this shift calls for an examination of how aggression functions in youths' pursuit of social status in elementary, middle and high school.

Throughout our upcoming posts, we will advocate for cultural change in schools. We have defined culture as "the systems of symbol, knowledge, belief and practice that are available within a given context for people to use to make meaning of their experiences" (Smith & Payne, 2010). Lines between what is "normal" and what is not are embedded in culture -- and serve as tools for youth to use in positioning themselves and others within various social hierarchies. We argue that schools need to understand the cultural beliefs they are promoting, how they are teaching these values to students, and how peer-to-peer aggression actually serves these cultural beliefs. Sustainable change cannot occur without this cultural awareness.

In our next few posts, we will: (1) Respond to questions most often asked in discussions of safe schools for LGBTQ students using a sociological framework, which understands schools both as cultural sites in which students battle for social position and as institutions where normative gender and sexuality are privileged. This is a significant shift from the "anti-bullying" paradigm's attention to behavior and attitudes, which places the problem on individuals rather than culture. (2) Introduce gender policing as an alternative framework for understanding peer-to-peer aggression. This framework draws attention to how normative gender expectations function as tools for targeting peers, as well as the role schools and other cultural institutions play in reproducing strict rules for "normal" gender expression. This framework encompasses many forms of aggression that fall outside bullying discourses. (3) Explore possibilities and limitations of litigation and legislation for disrupting systemic marginalization of non-conforming students and creating sustainable change in schools. (4) Propose a new set of questions for consideration that would move beyond defining "the problem" in terms of individual-to-individual or group-to-group interactions and, rather, identify school culture and gender policing as the focus for change.

Our ideas on bullying have been formed both through our own teaching and research in schools and through engagement with the research and writing of others in our field. A more in-depth and academically referenced version of this first series in the Queering Education Research Institute (QuERI) blogs will be published later this year in the education journal Multicultural Perspectives.