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Do policies focused on sexual orientation and gender identity buffer effects of homophobic bullying? A Secondary Prevention Study

Thu, April 12, 12:15 to 1:45pm, Hilton, Second Floor, Conrad B


Homophobic bullying (HB) is a pervasive and worrying phenomenon in schools worldwide (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, 2012). Students who report having experienced HB, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity (Poteat, Scheer, DiGiovanni, & Mereish, 2014), perceive schools to be less safe and are at higher risk for compromised mental health (Birkett, Espelage, & Koenig, 2009). In response to this well-documented problem, several policies and practices focused on sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI-policies) have been identified in the literature to reduce incidents of HB (Russell et al., 2010). However, previous studies have tested the primary prevention effects of SOGI-policies, while no studies tested their secondary prevention role. Considering the potential long-lasting problems related to the experience of bullying (Copeland, Wolke, Angold, & Costello, 2013), addressing the psychological needs of bullied students is particularly critical. Thus, this study was designed to examine whether SOGI-policies can reduce the harm associated with HB in terms of depression and perceived hostile climate at school.
We merged two independent surveys with overlapping samples. We use data from principals (School Health Profiles in 2014; n = 231) and students (California Healthy Kids Survey from 2013 to 2015; n = 118,226) in California high schools. Principals reported on the presence of SOGI-focused policies: 1) safe zones for sexual minority students, 2) gay-straight alliances (GSAs), 3) SOGI-focused professional training, 4) SOGI-focused information and support services, and 5) formal prohibition of discrimination on sexual orientation and gender identity. Students reported how many times they were victims of HB in the past year (0 =“0 times”; 3=“4 or more”), if they had depression symptoms (0=“no”, 1 =“yes”) and how good they perceived their school climate (14-item; α=.89). Analyses controlled for individual demographic characteristics (age, sex, sexual identity, gender identity, race and ethnicity) and school-level characteristics (enrollment and socioeconomic status).
Using multilevel models, we first tested if single SOGI-policies may moderate the effect of HB on depression and school climate. We found a significant interaction effect of HB by presence of GSAs on depression (b = .09; p = .009) (Fig. 1) and school climate (b = .04; p < .001) (Fig. 2). Specifically, we found that the effects of HB on depression (t[118,221]=2.36; p =.018) and school climate (t[118,221]=3.72; p <.001) were weaker for students with GSAs. We then tested the moderating role of the accumulative presence of SOGI-policies on depression and school climate. We only found an interaction effect of the number of SOGI-focused policies by HB on school climate (b = .01; p =.002). Results showed that the negative impact of HB on school climate was weaker for students with more SOGI -policies (t[118,221] = 2.48; p = .013).
Results highlight the supportive role of GSAs, both for the general school population but also and especially for students who experience HB. Moreover, adopting multiple SOGI-policies may be beneficial for the perceived school climate for victimized students. The discussion will include possible alternate interpretations and implications for education policy and practice.


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