Surge in school hate crimes linked to restrictive LGBTQ+ laws

Upset boy with backpack sitting in dark room. Bullying concept
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A startling new in-depth Washington Post analysis reveals what the publication calls a “disturbing and dangerous correlation between states that pass anti-LGBTQ+ legislation and a rise in bullying and hate crimes in schools.” The data found anti-LGBTQ+ hate crimes in K-12 schools have quadrupled in U.S. states that have laws restricting the rights of LGBTQ+ students.

The Post story, written by Laura Meckler, Hannah Natanson and John D. Harden, outlines a panoply of facts that underscore the urgency of this national crisis. School hate crimes targeting LGBTQ+ people — that is hate crimes that are “serious enough to be reported to local police” — have risen exponentially since 2018 and have climbed most precipitously in states that have passed laws restricting LGBTQ+ student rights and education, the Post analysis of FBI data found. According to FBI data, the most common hate crimes offenses reported at schools were intimidation, destruction, damage, simple assault (assault where no weapon was used) and vandalism. 

The latest FBI data shows schools were the third most common location for hate crimes in the U.S. in a recent five-year stretch. After homes and roadways, schools K-12 made up 10% of hate crimes in 2022. The FBI data defines a hate crime as “a committed criminal offense” motivated by race, ethnicity, ancestry, religion, sexual orientation, disability, gender or gender identity. In 2022, 10% of total reported hate crime offenses occurred in schools. In 2018, this percentage was 8.2%. Elementary and secondary schools reported more hate crimes than colleges and universities.

Additionally, in states with restrictive laws, the number of hate crimes at K-12 schools more than quadrupled since what the Post calls the “onset of a divisive culture war that has often centered on the rights of LGBTQ+ youth.” The Post showed graphs with data on state-by-state restrictions on LGBTQ+ education, trans students’ access to school sports and facilities like bathrooms and changing areas as well as on the average yearly anti-LGBTQ+ hate crimes on K-12 school campuses.

The Post also explained that studies repeatedly indicate that LGBTQ+ youth are at higher risk for bullying and mental health problems than their straight cisgender peers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2021 Youth Risk Behavior survey found that more than 1 in 3 gay, lesbian and bisexual students were bullied either on school property or online in the previous year. For about 1 in 4, the bullying was at school. Among straight students, those rates were about half as high.

Concomitant with this escalation, calls to LGBTQ+ youth crisis hotlines have increased exponentially, which has led LGBTQ advocates to link this current GOP-sponsored political climate to the spike in bullying and hate crimes. The Post is succinct: “LGBTQ+ students have long dealt with bullying and harassment at school, but some students are feeling particularly vulnerable due to the wave of legislation.”

That vulnerability was heightened by the recent death of nonbinary teen, Nex Benedict, in Oklahoma. After a year of bullying and a physical altercation with a group of girls just hours before Benedict’s death that sent the teen to the hospital, has galvanized attention to this issue. 

According to the data analysis by the Post, the number of anti-LGBTQ+ school hate crimes serious enough to be reported to local police more than doubled nationwide between 2015-2019 and 2021-2022. (The number of reported hate crimes overall dropped in 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down many schools, forcing online learning.) The rise was significantly higher in the 28 states that have passed laws curtailing the rights of trans students at school and restricting how teachers can talk about issues of gender identity and sexual orientation, like Florida’s notorious “Don’t Say Gay” law which initially covered only grades K-3 until GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis expanded it to cover all K-12 grades and which has been reaffirmed in court challenges. 

In so-called blue states, which have not passed restrictive school LGBTQ+ laws, the Post revealed that the rise in FBI hate crimes was lower — though the absolute number of crimes was higher. Analysts said that may be because people in those states are more likely to report incidents.

According to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), a third of the over 550 anti-LGBTQ+ bills introduced in state houses last year were attacks on any form of LGBTQ+ inclusion in the classroom with a disproportionate impact on transgender youth.

In a report on the Post story, Axios noted, “Longtime fears about gay people, concerns about parents’ rights and multi million-dollar lobbying fueled by conservative groups were among the contributing factors” to anti-LGBTQ laws and policies.

As alarming as the hate crimes stats are, the Post’s data on responses to hotlines indicates that there is far more harassment, bullying and possible hate crimes than may be being reported to police. The research showed a “rising number of young people in distress.”

Calls have spiked to the Trevor Project, which provides support to LGBTQ+ youth aimed at suicide prevention and crisis intervention. In the fiscal year ending in July 2022, the group fielded about 230,000 crisis contacts, including phone calls, texts and online chats. The following year, it was more than 500,000.

Data from the Rainbow Youth Project, a nonprofit that offers crisis response and counseling to at-risk LGBTQ+ youth, saw a similar increase in calls to its hotline. Those calls rose from an average of 1,000 per month in 2022 to just over 1,400 per month in 2023. The primary reason callers gave in 2023 was anti-LGBTQ+ “political rhetoric,” which included the discourse over LGBTQ+ school policies.

In the past month following Nex Benedict’s death on Feb. 8, the Rainbow Youth Project received almost 1,100 calls in Oklahoma in February, compared with 321 calls in January. Lance Preston, the Rainbow Youth Project’s founder and executive director, told the Post that these calls would include youth saying, “‘My government hates me,’ ‘My school hates me,’ ‘They don’t want me to exist.’” 

Preston said, “That … is absolutely unacceptable. That is shocking.”

The lengthy Post story delved deeply into the laws in Oklahoma due to the death of Nex Benedict and quoted both anti-LGBTQ+ politicians in the state as well as researchers and college professors on the issues detailed in the story. Some people, notably Oklahoma schools superintendent Ryan Walters, refute any links between their prohibitive policies and intimidation or violence. Walters told the Post in an interview that “Nex’s death was a heartbreaking tragedy,” but that anyone linking the teen’s death to bullying or gender identity are “pushing a left-wing agenda” and “politicizing the death of a student.” 

In a press release responding to the Post story, HRC noted that HRC Foundation’s 2023 Youth Survey Report introduction provides further evidence that the safety of LGBTQ+ youth must be paramount for educators, school boards and administrators.

The FBI’s own data report said,”Analyzing commonalities of reported hate crime offenses in schools can facilitate strategies to mitigate or prevent these offenses in the future.”

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