Bullying of LGBT students is reaching epidemic proportions in schools in Japan and the United States at a time when tolerance for students of different races, cultures and abilities is growing.

The paradox is forcing educators to rethink their strategies.

With 70 percent of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) adults in the Tokyo area reporting that they were bullied when they were in school, a program is needed to teach students understanding and acceptance of sexual differences. Failure to do so can lead not only to dropouts but to suicide.

That’s what happened in 1986 when Hirofumi Shikagawa, an eighth-grade student, took his life in Nakano Ward, Tokyo. He left a note saying that his schoolmates had constantly ridiculed and tormented him, and that he couldn’t take it anymore.

Incessant bullying has also led to suicide in the U.S. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, as many as 30 percent of LGBT youth commit suicide.

The Internet has exacerbated the matter because of the ease with which vicious comments about a person’s sexuality can be posted anonymously.

If these comments take place off school grounds and outside of school hours, educators are reluctant to discipline offenders because they can be sued for violating the free speech rights of students.

Moreover, educators often feel uncomfortable or embarrassed when the topic involves LGBT issues.

Even if bullying does not result in suicide, it has other serious effects. Nearly nine out of 10 LGBT students reported being verbally harassed at school last year, resulting in one of every 10 of them dropping out of school.

Recognizing the potential for permanent harm, New York City opened the nation’s first LGBT school 10 years ago. The Harvey Milk High School, which was named for the openly gay San Francisco supervisor assassinated in 1978, initially enrolled 100 students, but in the last school year enrollment dropped to 69.

Its mission was to provide a safe learning environment for students who were experiencing bullying over their sexual orientation or gender identity. Despite its intent, the school was the subject of criticism from the beginning from those who questioned whether separating students was the best way to help them.

The argument was based on concern that other groups of students who were the subject of bullying would also demand their own school, leading to balkanization.

But when 61 percent of all students feel unsafe at school because of their actual or perceived sexual orientation, such schools are a temporary necessity.

In the long run, however, legislation is essential that makes LGBT students a protected class in the same way that racial minorities and special education students are. Until then, schools can include anti-bullying policy in student handbooks and codes of conduct, and provide teachers with training to identify and intervene to bullying in a systematic way.

Despite the obvious cultural differences between Japan and the U.S., what they share is the terrible harm done to LGBT students by homophobia. It creates an environment that interferes with learning for students, whose potential to contribute to their respective societies is unlikely to ever be realized.

Walt Gardner, who taught for 28 years in the Los Angeles Unified School District, writes the Reality Check blog for Education Week in the United States.

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