According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), school environments that are safe and supportive and that provide access to quality health education and services help students feel connected to the peers and adults in their schools. That sense of connectedness has been shown to have long-lasting impacts on health and well-being. And as students get older and start to date, providing access to inclusive health education is also critical. This is especially the case for LGBTQI+ students, who are at higher risk of teen dating violence.
What Do We Know About Teen Dating Violence Among LGBTQI+ Youth?
The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) enforces civil rights laws to protect all students from unlawful discrimination and harassment on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, disability, and age. This includes students who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, asexual, intersex, nonbinary or who identify their sexual orientation or gender identity in other ways (LGBTQI+). Schools are supported with several resources to help educators build supportive learning environments.
In 2021, the CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) found that 8.5% of all teens who reported dating someone within the past year had experienced physical violence, and 9.7% reported being the victim of sexual violence. Although we know that all teens can be at risk, other research shows how lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth are at higher risk for dating violence compared with heterosexual and cisgender youth (Dank et al., 2014). Despite the high rates of violence among LGBTQ+ youth, and associated harmful effects on LGBTQ+ health outcomes, these youth have been largely overlooked in current prevention programs and research (Reek, 2021).
In April of 2023, the National Institute of Justice issued a fact sheet, Five Things About Teen Dating Violence, addressing what long-term funding of research has demonstrated about how to understand and respond to teen dating violence. Most notably, research shows that teen dating violence prevention programs demonstrate effectiveness in improving teens’ knowledge of and attitudes about abuse and violence in intimate/dating relationships, as well as reducing dating violence perpetration. These and other programs, however, have historically not focused on or provided content specific to LGBTQI+ youths’ experiences and needs.
Recently, the CDC updated their teen violence prevention program model, known as Dating Matters. The newer version includes a guide focused on relationships among LGBTQ+ youth. It also provides educators with knowledge and resources regarding teen dating violence to motivate them to implement prevention measures in their schools. Additionally, there is a guide for parents/caregivers to aid them in providing relational support to LGBTQ+ youth in their lives. These new resources are significant in that they align with research showing that having supportive relationships with parent/caregivers and other adults can help LGBTQ+ youth thrive.
What Can Schools and Districts Do to Help Prevent LGBTQI+ Teen Dating Violence?
Like all forms of violence, teen dating violence is preventable. Schools are one important setting for programs that help students explore healthy relationships. Students who experience dating violence often experience abuse while at school, which puts educators in a unique position to recognize abusive behavior and refer students to supportive resources. Relatively few schools, however, have written policies governing safety, security, and intervention for students experiencing dating violence (Peetz & Baker, 2023). Examining sexual health and wellness education policies at the local level may shed light on opportunities for preventing harm in teen dating relationships (Rochford et al., 2022).
In an effort to support the important role that schools play in reducing teen dating violence, the Department of Education issued Teen Dating Violence in the United States: A Fact Sheet for Schools. This fact sheet contains recommendations and resources that educators can use to become stronger partners in reducing teen dating violence and other forms of gender-based violence. The Department of Education encourages schools and districts to take the following steps:
- “Educate your community about prevention and identification.
- “Develop locally tailored, appropriate responses to address teen dating violence.
- “To provide effective support to traumatized youth or to address the behavior and needs of perpetrators, adopt a comprehensive approach that takes into account the unique challenges that these offenses present (e.g., victim reluctance to report and trauma from sexual violence).”
As we explored what can be done to support LGBTQI+ students, NCSSLE spoke with Liat Wexler, a longtime antiviolence advocate and educator. Wexler invites schools to consider a multiprong approach to address LGBTQI+ teen dating violence:
- Teach comprehensive sex education that goes beyond safer sex and merely acknowledging LGBTQI+ genders and orientations to include discussion of LGBTQI+ community dynamics, which are often different from cisgender heterosexual ones, and skill-building exercises with relevant scenarios.
- Integrate skill-building exercises with relevant scenarios, consent, boundaries, respectful relationships, and LGBTQI+ identities into other, non-sexual-education teaching activities and curriculum.
- Model consent, respect for boundaries, and openness and knowledge about LGBTQI+ identities.
- Swiftly interrupt bullying and hazing that offers a restorative or transformative way for students to take accountability.
- Actively support Gender & Sexuality Alliances (GSA) to empower queer and transgender students and center their leadership, which builds the skills to recognize when their autonomy and power are being violated.
- Implement comprehensive non-discrimination policies that protect and affirm students’ sexual orientation, gender identity, and/or gender expression and prohibit discrimination against LGBTQI+ students, families, and educators.
- Engage parents and other community members in creating safe, healthy environments that respect the boundaries of teens in and out of school.
Based on the latest research and practice, we have learned four things. First, the role schools play in fostering and sustaining a positive environment is key to the academic, social, and emotional success of students. Second, ensuring that all students experience safety and connectedness in school can impact how students feel about themselves and whether they believe they deserve healthy, supportive, and caring relationships. Third, although teen dating violence is a prevalent problem among LGBTQI+ youth, research on teen dating violence has not addressed how best to serve this population, and most current prevention programs do not directly focus on LGBTQI+ youth. In the meantime, there are tools we can use and learn from. And fourth, LGBTQI+ students cannot learn if they do not feel safe. To support LGBTQI+ youth in having violence-free relationships, we must be willing to address and acknowledge the intersecting norms that uphold violence as well as homophobia and transphobia.
Ezra Wheeler, who attended high school in rural California, is now a peer educator for the Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention (RSVP) program, a branch of the Campus Assault Resources and Education (CARE) program at the University of San Diego, providing support, resources, and education to the student community pertaining to sexual assault and relationship violence. Wheeler echoes the notion that teen dating violence prevention and intervention must be inclusive. They shared the following with NCSSLE:
I had very little access to teen dating violence resources in general, and basically no access to inclusive LGBTQI+ teen dating resources. I think that if I had had access to inclusive teen dating violence resources, I likely would have been more engaged with teen dating violence prevention and awareness. I think that it would have gone a long way in helping me identify the harm that I had experienced earlier as a queer adolescent and allow me to begin the healing process earlier and prevent further harm.
Efforts to prevent teen dating violence are inextricably tied to ensuring safety and equality for LGBTQI+ communities. Future research and programming could assess and improve the effectiveness of current prevention policies, programs, and practices in supporting LGBTQI+ youth as well as strategies and approaches that are based on the best available evidence for preventing intimate partner violence, including teen dating violence. Supporting the development of healthy, respectful, and nonviolent relationships must include LGBTQI+ youth in order to reduce and prevent the harmful and long-lasting effects that teen dating violence has on students, their families, and the communities where they live.
This blog was developed by Sophia Arredondo with valuable input from Kelly King, Sara Wolforth, and Megan Gildin.