Adolescents’ Sexual Orientation and School Connectedness: The Role of Race, Ethnicity, and Gender.
Background/purpose: Queer adolescents are three times more likely to express suicidal ideation, experience higher rates of exclusionary discipline, and are more likely to be targets of bullying compared to their straight peers. In light of these disparities, students’ sense of connection to school may provide some protection for this vulnerable group. School Connectedness (SC), the feeling of belonging, being respected, and being recognized as a valuable member of a school community, is associated with lower levels of suicidal ideation, involvement with the juvenile justice system, and higher grades and rates of graduation from high school. However, few studies have explored how students’ sexual orientation affects their school connectedness or how other intersection identities factor into this relationship. Thus, this study examines the associations of students’ sexual orientation with their school connectedness and how these associations differ by race/ethnicity and gender, factors that can compound vulnerability.
Methods: This study uses national, population-based data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study (FFCWS). The FFCWS is a birth cohort study following approximately 5,000 children born in large US cities to age 15. Analyses are based on data from the baseline (child’s birth) and the wave 6 follow-up survey, when the focal child was approximately 15 years old (N=3,076).
A school connectedness scale (0=least connected, 12=most connected) was constructed based on adolescents’ responses to 4 questions about their sense of happiness, safety, belonging, and closeness to school. Students’ sexual orientation, the main independent variable, was assessed through students’ response to the question “have you ever liked a boy/girl more than a fiend?”. Adolescents’ race, /ethnicity (non-Hispanic white, non-Hispanic black, Hispanic, Other), and gender (male/female) were considered as moderators. Ordinary least squares models controlled for a number of other important characteristics, including type of school, school engagement, experiencing suspension, witnessing arrest at school, and having a supportive adult in their lives.
Results: Results indicate that queer adolescents have significantly lower SC compared to their straight peers. In addition, these results suggest that among girls, identifying as queer is not associated with a significant reduction in SC; however, for boys there is a strong negative association. When looking at race and ethnicity, white straight students have the highest SC, however, among queer students, being white is associated with a significant decline in SC. There was no such moderation for other race and ethnic groups considered here.
Conclusions and Implications: This study, based on a large population-based sample, suggests school connectedness is significantly lower for students who identify as Gay, Lesbian, or Bisexual. Further, it appears that queer white and male students are particularly affected. These findings point to the need for interventions and further research that include transgender and non-binary students in these types of analyses, as well as studies that focus on risk and resiliency factors among adolescents of intersecting identities to better understand reasons why they feel less connected and introduce policies and interventions that can reduce this disparity.