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Studio Fashion Portrait
Studio Fashion Portrait

No Child Left Behind: Except queer youth.

by Amy Leipziger




The spectrum of our traumas can be as broad as our identities.”

          -George Johnson, All Boys Aren't Blue



Alice, my fourteen-year-old client, was persistently harassed and bullied at school for years, with school staff failing to stop it or help her deal with the daily trauma from it. The barrage of slurs about her gender identity and orientation left her struggling with depression, anxiety about being around other people, and a propensity for self-harm. Her experience is, disturbingly, an all too common one and highlights a particular vulnerability for LGBTQ+ youths in schools.


I’ve spent years as an education attorney helping students, and their parents, navigate the New York City school system. Time and again, I’ve seen the challenges they face, from struggling to receive the appropriate special education services, the need for more robust language support for recent immigrants, and perhaps most prominently – and regularly overlooked in discussions regarding the need for more social-emotional support in schools – the exposure to harassment, bullying, discrimination, and assault. Some students report it; most do not. The research around under-reporting, within the context of gender-based assault and harassment, has found that many youths do not feel comfortable reporting incidents because they fear they will not be believed or they worry they will face reprimand or reprisal from school officials.[i] This impunity then perpetuates a hostile climate for students who feel that adults will not intervene on their behalf.[ii] Last year, the New York Times wrote about the mental health crisis among teens,[iii] but failed to recognize that the population that disproportionately struggles the most with mental health.[iv] and feels the most unsafe at school are LGBTQ+ students.[v] And yet there is no disputing the data--a recent multi-state survey of nearly a quarter million students found that LGBTQ+ youth reported higher rates of depression, hopelessness, and suicidal thoughts than their peers.[vi]


As George Johnson noted, the trauma that LGBTQ+ youths experience is distinct from their individual and lived experiences. What the data surrounding school-based bullying doesn’t tell us is how this particular example of complex trauma,[vii] or adverse childhood experience,[viii] impacts these youth over time. Exposure to complex trauma can profoundly affect a young person, and studies have repeatedly shown that childhood trauma can physically alter the developing brains and bodies of children, making them more likely to suffer from cognitive, neurological, and behavioral changes that “severely interfere with school functioning.”[ix] These changes include poor concentration, intrusive thoughts, disorganized behavior, agitation and irritability, avoidant behaviors, decreased IQ and reading ability, decreased social competence, and increased rates of peer rejection.[x] As a result, many suffer from low literacy, high dropout rates, repeating grades, low achievement, and the school-to-prison pipeline, all of which have been shown to have a high correlation with exposure to trauma. It’s no surprise then that a recent report of youth in juvenile correctional facilities found that fifty-four percent of them reported having experienced four or more adverse childhood experiences in their young lives.[xi]


These adverse experiences can take many forms. For example, in New York City,  approximately 8,400 of the estimated 15,000 to 20,000 homeless youth identify as LGBTQ+.[xii] And these queer youth are more likely to experience bullying, sexual assault, violence, trauma, HIV infection, mental health disorders, and substance abuse than their heterosexual peers[JD1].[xiii]


I am not suggesting that we disregard or minimize the severity of the adversity experienced by homeless LGBTQ+ youth, especially in a city where over 100,000 students in the school system are homeless,[xiv] but I find it an insult to injury that school should become its own source of trauma at a time when many LGBTQ+ youth are navigating their identity, a critical, and vulnerable point in their lives.


Kevin, my seventeen-year-old client, cut classes on a regular basis just to avoid the students that would regularly insult him. He told me that most mornings, he struggled with whether he had it in him to go to school and face the same group of kids that would regularly taunt him with homophobic slurs. He said the most frustrating part was that his teachers, who regularly overheard what his peers were saying to him, failed to take any action to stop it.


Alice and Kevin are not alone. In New York state, nearly sixty percent of LGBTQ+ youth feel unsafe in school due to their sexual orientation, and thirty-five percent for their gender identity.[xv] Over ninety-five percent of LGBTQ+ youth have heard homophobic or transphobic slurs used in school, with more than half of the slurs coming from school staff.[xvi] When school officials perpetuate this toxic school climate, they send a message of complicity that contributes to under-reporting, but also that the trauma inflicted upon the LGBTQ+ student isn’t significant. As George Johnson so thoughtfully detailed in his memoir, the fear of dealing with bullying, of regularly being surrounded by those that don’t respect one’s identity, builds a constricting pressure that lives inside that youth for years.


A recent study on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in students found that schools are an “ideal setting for mental health professionals to intervene with traumatized students.”[xvii] And yet, there continues to be a disconnect between school districts and youth to ensure that they have the full range of educational and social-emotional support that they need to succeed. LGBTQ+ young people are facing so much hostility, from difficulty finding safe spaces at school to abusive environments at home; it’s critical that school staff, teachers, and other community leaders recognize their role as one that can help, not harm, these vulnerable youth.[xviii]

There must be a long-term strategy to provide help them heal and learn in the classroom.


School districts are required under various federal laws to safeguard the rights of students: Title IX [xix] to protect them from gender-based violence or harassment;[xx] the McKinney-Vento Act[xxi] to ensure that homeless and displaced students have access to educational resources; and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973[xxii] to provide the right to reasonable accommodation, which can include support for those experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder/mental health problem. Despite these various protections, they are clearly not doing enough to protect LGBTQ+ children’s rights. While a recent report found that complaints to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) alleging transgender and gender identity discrimination have increased in the last few years, more needs to be done.[xxiii] Legislation and litigation[xxiv] are stepping stones, but they won’t ameliorate the trauma that so many LGBTQ+ youth experience or how it affects them in the classroom.  


Some school districts around the country are tackling the problem head-on by creating trauma-informed practices and programs to address the academic, social-emotional, attendance, and behavioral needs of students.[xxv] These programs often include mental health and counseling services for the highest-need students, trauma-informed training and support for all educators and school staff, and teaching students skills to cope with their anxiety and emotions through the implementation of Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) Programs.[xxvi] Here in New York City, the Healing Centered Schools Task Force is working with parents, community members, and advocates to help individual schools in its school district implement healing-centered educational practices.[xxvii]


Though addressing the trauma is critical, it is only one part of the solution. In order to truly meet the needs of LGBTQ+ students, government officials, school leaders, community members, parents, and youth must recognize that a collaborative, interdisciplinary, and inclusive approach is necessary. Some schools may benefit from instruction and discussion for students; others might require more professional development for teachers; and/or policy development, including increased support for the development of Gender and Sexuality Alliances (GSA)[xxviii] and inclusive curriculum.[xxix] There is also some research that pediatricians can advocate for evidence-based, antibullying policies that can help improve the health of youth.[xxx]


There is no denying that now is the time to capitalize on the conversation surrounding the trauma for LGBTQ+ youth. For students like Kevin and Alice, having school be a safe space was critical to helping them navigate the other challenges they had in negotiating identity and space as young people. Though addressing school-based practices is not a global solution for the other adverse childhood experiences for LGBTQ+ youth, it can be a start towards creating a safe space for those in need.





[i] See Carolyn Haney, Addressing the High School Sexual Assault Epidemic:Preventive and Responsive Solutions, 8 Ind. J.L. & Soc. Equality 89, 99 (2020), available at; see also Aviva Stahl, ‘This Is an Epidemic’: How NYC Public Schools Punish Girls for Being Raped, VICE (June 8, 2016), girls-for-being-raped

[ii] Supra, note 1.

[iii] Matt Richtel, It’s Life or Death: The Mental Health Crisis Among U.S. Teens, N.Y. TIMES, (April 23, 2022),

[iv] Mary Ellen Flannery, New Survey Data Shows LGBTQ+ Youth Mental Health Crisis, National Education Association, May 25, 2022,

[v] Patrick Wall, Unsafe, Unwelcoming, LGBTQ Students Report Facing Hostility At School, October 25, 2022, CHALKBEAT,; see also Kosciw, J. G., Clark, C. M., & Menard, L. (2022). The 2021 National School Climate Survey: The experiences of LGBTQ+ youth in our nation’s schools. New York: GLSEN, available at

[vi] The 2022 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health, The Trevor Project (2022)

[vii] The term complex trauma can describe both the exposure to multiple traumatic events as well as the long-term effects of it. See Complex Trauma, The National Child Traumatic Stress Network,

[viii]The term adverse childhood experience, as described in the study conducted at Kaiser Permanente, detailed the relationship between long term toxic stress and its impact on youth. The study, conducted over two years, compiled information from over 17,000 adults regarding their childhood experiences.  Vincent J. Felitti et. al. Relationship of Childhood Abuse and Household Dysfunction to Many of the Leadings Causes of Death in Adults: The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study, Am J  Prev Med 1998; 14(4)(1998), available at

[ix] Sheryl Kataoka, Audra Langley, et al., Responding to Students with PTSD in Schools, 21 Child Adolesc. Psychiatr. Clin. N. Am. 1, 2 (Jan. 2012), available at

[x] Id. at 1.

[xi] Kirsty A. Clark et. al. Mental Health Among Sexual and Gender Minority Youth Incarcerated in Juvenile Corrections. Pediatrics. 2022;150(6): e2022058158, available at

[xii] Humanity in Action, Gay Homeless Youth and their lives on the  Streets of New York City (2009). Though this report was generated in 2009, a citywide snapshot from 2017 found the data remained approximately the same. See New York City Youth Count Report (2017), available at

[xiii] According to a study published by the National Institute of Health, “LGBTQ minors who are homeless are at the highest risk for sex trafficking and sexual exploitation.” Trafficking also increases the LGBTQ youth’s risk of: physical or sexual assault, drug and alcohol use/abuse and STI/HIV transmission. Omar Martinez & Guadalupe Kelle, Sex Trafficking of LGBTQ Individuals, Int Law News 2013 Fall; 42(4), at

[xiv] Advocates for Children, Student Homelessness in New York City 20221-2022 (October 2022) at

[xv] LGBTQ Youth in Schools Data, Office of Children and Family Services, New York State, at

[xvi] Id.

[xvii] S. Kataoka et. al. Responding to students with posttraumatic stress disorder in schools. Child Adolesc Psychiatr Clin N Am. 2012 Jan;21(1):119-33, available at

[xviii] Nathaniel Tran et. al. Adverse Childhood Experiences and Mental Distress Among US Adults by Sexual Orientation, JAMA Psychiatry. 2022;79(4):377-379, available at

[xix] 20 U.S.C. §1681-§1688.

[xx] Although Title IX did not explicitly address gender identity or expression when it was passed in 1973, the U.S. Department of Education has confirmed that the statute protects students based on sexual orientation,  gender identity, and expression. See Federal Register, Vol. 86. No. 117 (2021), at

[xxi] 42 U.S.C. §11431-§11435.

[xxii] 29 U.S.C. § 794.

[xxiii] Erica Green, Strife in the Schools: Education Dept Logs Record Number of Discrimination Complaints, N.Y. TIMES, (January 1, 2023),,000%20complaints%20were%20filed,figures%20provided%20by%20the%20department.

[xxiv] Movement Advancement Project. "Equality Maps: Safe Schools Laws." Accessed 02/06/2023.

[xxv] Trauma Sensitive Schools, San Diego County Office of Education,;  Trauma-Informed Approaches in Schools, Colorado Department of Education, See also this study on efficacy of trauma sensitive schools, D, Atallah, et. al. An Evaluation of Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative’s (TLPI) Inquiry-Based Process: Year Three. (2019) Boston, MA: Boston University, Wheelock College of Education and Human Development.

[xxvi] U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, Supporting Child and Student Social, Emotional, Behavioral, and Mental Health Needs, Washington, DC, 2021. This report is available on the Department’s website at

[xxvii]; see also

[xxviii] Robert A. Marx, Gay-Straight Alliances are Associated with Lower Levels of School-Based Victimization of LGBTQ+ Youth: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis, Journal of Youth and Adolescence 45, 1269-1282 (2016).

[xxix] GLSEN, Advocate for Inclusive & Affirming Curriculum, at Research has found that students who see themselves in the curriculum are more likely to feel that they belong to the school community and that belonging keeps them in school. A study sponsored by Global Observatory of LGBT+ Rights and Education, found that not only did it help students feel more engaged in the work, but led to a significant reduction in bullying. See Oren Pizmony-Levy & BeLonG To Youth Services, the 2019 School Climate Survey Report: The experience of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans young people in Ireland’s schools. Research Report. Ireland: Dublin (2019).

[xxx] Valerie Earnshaw, et. al. LGBTQ Bullying: Translating Research to Action in Pediatrics, Pediatrics, 2017 Oct; 140(4): available at



Amy Leipziger

Amy Leipziger is the Project Director of the Peter Cicchino Youth Project at the Urban Justice Center which works to interrupt the cycles of poverty and criminalization that prevent homeless and street-involved LGBTQ+ young people from living fulfilling lives free from discrimination, abuse, and oppression. She is an adjunct professor in the Education Law Clinic at New York Law School. She received a J.D. from CUNY Law School, an M.A. in Gender Studies from George Washington University, and a B.A. from the University of Oregon.

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