WASHINGTON (CN) – Eliza Byard remembers when she found out her years of working with the Department of Education had finally paid off. As the executive director of the GLSEN, a group that advocates for LGBTQ youth in K-12 schools across the nation, she’d been working for the better part of a decade to have the agency count incidents of bullying based on students’ sexual orientation or gender identity in its annual civil rights reporting.
So in 2014, when she was at the White House for the unveiling of the design for a stamp of famed gay rights activist Harvey Milk, she was already getting ready to celebrate. But when an official from the National Center for Education Statistics walked up to a student advocate she had worked with for years, and told him that schools would now track the bullying he had experienced, she was overwhelmed.
“Once you begin to measure things, they began to matter and there will be pressure to act,” she said in a phone interview Friday evening.
But when Byard learned the DOE under Secretary Betsy DeVoss is planning to remove gender identity and gender expression from the data collection, she saw it as a large step backwards for LGBTQ rights and the students her group aims to protect.
“For people who don’t want to act on these issues, they don’t want to see the problem,” she said. “It does have the effect of erasing specific incidents at the top level of our data collection.”
According to documents filed by the agency this week, incidents of bullying based on gender identity or gender expression will no longer be tracked as part of annual, mandatory reporting conducted by schools for the department’s Office of Civil Rights. Where language once defined “Harassment or bullying on the basis of sex” as acts targeting “gender identity, gender expression, and nonconformity with gender stereotypes,” the document now defines “sexual harassment” as “bullying based on sex stereotyping.”
Byard, who said the current DOE and broader Trump administration have a history of erasing LGBTQ language from federal policies, is familiar with the new term. Through her recent work with department members she thinks some believe it will continue to track incidents against LGBTQ youth, but not all of it.
“It will lead to confusion and more harm,” she said, fearing the new policy would no longer disaggregate specific incidents of bullying between the two groups.
“[It will] diminish our capacity to understand the nature of the problem,” she said. “And for LGBTQ youth [sex stereotyping] doesn’t apply to some of the ways they are targeted unless advocates help educators understand.”
GLSEN has used the data as part of its annual School Climate Survey which aims to paint a picture of the issues experienced by LGBTQ youth in schools.
It’s also used in semi-annual reports by the DOE with the most recent agency report tracking data from the 2015-2016 school year. Anti-sexual orientation-related bullying made up 16% of the total reports, third behind sex and race.
Seth Galanter, senior director at the National Center for Youth Law, another youth advocacy organization, similarly noticed the proposed changes to how the agency would count LGBTQ bullying, especially because he used to work in the DOE department which handled the data collection during the Obama administration.
While he took issue with other parts of the proposed policy changes, including the lack of required reporting on teachers’ salaries and other school finance data, he noticed the harassment related changes in the summary document were only defined as “achieve[ing] more consistency with [the Office of Civil Rights] complaint adjudication processes.”
“We provided all the definitions that we were planning on using so people could comment on everything, not just our summary,” he said of his time adding LGBTQ specific language to the reporting requirements. “It’s troubling that they would try and make such a change without giving the public a clear understanding.”
The proposed changes are still in the early stages and are awaiting public comment which should end in late November.