LGBT Campus Climate Survey – An Eye-Opening Experience

September
2015
Rhonda Findling, EOPS Counselor, Santa Rosa Junior College

With the recent historic Supreme Court decision on gay marriage rights, LGBTQ college students are living in exciting times with hopes of futures endowed with equal rights.  In order to ensure that college campuses are providing students with equal educational opportunities through a safe, welcoming, and inclusive college experience, colleges must take the LGBT Campus Climate Survey, a nationally-recognized assessment tool for assisting campuses in improving their environments for LGBTQ students.

In April 2014, a representative team of six LGBT staff at all constituent levels at Santa Rosa Junior College (SRJC) came together to take part in the Campus Climate Survey. We were told that the survey was being encouraged by the State Academic Senate.  Most of us at SRJC saw no reason to be concerned that our campus was not a welcoming place for LGBTQ students.  We live in an area of California that has a relatively large percentage of LGBTQ individuals and families and a county that is considered mostly liberal.  For years, we have had an LGBTQ staff association—GALEAF, Gay and Lesbian Employees and Friends—to advocate for LGBT-related issues. 

The LGBT Campus Climate survey questions required input from managers in areas such as Human Resources, District Police, Admissions and Records, and Student Health Services.  When Campus Pride, the operators of the survey, sent us our results in a report, we were stunned by how poorly our district scored.  The detailed report brought to light many deficiencies and areas in which we clearly could be performing much better for LGBT students and staff.  In short, the LGBT Campus Climate report became a wake-up call that we were not, for the most part, a safe, inclusive, and welcoming campus for LGBTQ students. 

As an example, the survey asked us whether our campus had gender-neutral bathrooms.  We realized that on our main campus site, we had not a single one.  Gender-neutral bathrooms are a safety issue not only for transgender individuals in transition but also for those whose gender expression and identity would place them on the gender continuum as neither male nor female but somewhere in the middle.   In fact, gender-neutral restrooms have become such an important issue for college campuses that the president of the UC system, Janet Napolitano, issued a mandate last year asking all UC-campuses to provide gender-neutral bathrooms.

The LGBT Campus-Climate survey is divided into eight different areas:  LGBT Policy Inclusion, LGBT Support and Institutional Commitment, LGBT Academic Life, LGBT Student Life, LGBT Housing and Residence Life, LGBT Campus Safety, LGBT Counseling and Health, and LGBT Recruitment and Retention.   The rating scale ranges from one to five stars, with five stars being the high or positive rating.  SRJC received five stars in only one area – Counseling and Health – primarily because our Director of Student Health Services has done an excellent and deliberate job of making sure her staff is trained on LGBTQ health issues and that the special health care needs of LGBTQ students are incorporated into all health services. 

We received only one star in three of the eight areas—Support and Institutional Commitment, Campus Safety, and Recruitment and Retention—as well as only 1.5 stars in LGBT Academic Life.  Our campus was doing next to nothing to create a safe, inclusive, and welcoming environment for LGBTQ students, and we were very much in the dark about it. 

Conversations with students added additional insight regarding these matters.  Gender-queer and transgender students had encountered negative experiences both inside and outside the classroom and did not feel entirely safe on our campus sites.  Some gay and lesbian students were victims of name-calling and bullying.  Anti-gay stickers had even appeared in our student parking lots.  But with no LGBT resource center, no staff person assigned to address LGBT issues, no safe-space ally signs, no LGBT-sponsored campus events, no LGBT focused classes, no LGBT advisory committee, no LGBT outreach and recruitment, and no training or visibility from our district police on handling anti-LGBT incidences, our LGBTQ students had almost nowhere to take their concerns.  One openly gay student confided that he had “repeatedly experienced discrimination” and felt our campus was “not a gay-friendly place.” Thus, our overall score on the report was only two of five stars. 

A year later, we have taken the results of the survey and moved into action mode.  From the Campus Climate report, SRJC put together a list of 22 recommendations. By the end of Fall 2014, we had four gender-neutral bathrooms on our largest campus site, safe-space ally placards with an accompanying PowerPoint training, and a preferred name option for students on class rosters. District Superintendent-President Frank Chong also formed an LGBTQ-Presidential Advisory Committee to prioritize and address other recommendations. 

By the end of Spring 2015, the college had approved our first LGBT-focused class – LGBT Arts and Literature (ENGL 36) – which will be offered in Fall 2015.  Students from our LGBTQ club also asked for more visibility on our college homepage.  Thus, in June 2015, our Public Relations department featured LGBT pride month front-and-center on our homepage, including an in-depth interview of one of our lesbian faculty members, and Dr. Chong wrote a supportive LGBT blog linked to the homepage as well.

Because the Campus Climate Survey can yield such useful information and positive results, all campuses that have not already done so, should contact Campus Pride (www.campuspride.org) and request to take the survey.  At the time of this writing, only 10 California Community Colleges have taken it, and only one college – Pomona College – received five stars.  Only two others – Napa College and Sierra College – received four stars.   Most of the others scored in close range to SRJC – two stars.  Similar to the CCCs, only eight CSUs to date have completed the survey.  The only CSU of the eight to earn five stars was San Diego State.  CSU Northridge obtained 4.5 stars, and Long Beach and San Jose each received four stars. By contrast, all nine UC campuses have taken the survey and are also far ahead of the CCCs in how they scored.  UC Berkeley, UCLA, UC Riverside, UCSB, and UCSC all received five stars.  UC Irvine, and UCSD were close behind with 4.5 stars.  UC Davis scored four stars.

Clearly, most public institutions of higher education in California have work to do if they want to be LGBTQ safe, welcoming, and inclusive.  Another way to contextualize the situation and the problem is to look at the statistics produced by GLSEN – the Gay and Lesbian Straight Education Network – a nationally recognized resource for collecting data on school climate for LGBTQ students in the high school and middle school systems.  The last GLSEN report published to date, in 2013, reveals that 55.5% of LGBT students felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation and 37.8% because of their gender expression.  71.4% heard “gay” used in a negative way, 74.1% were verbally harassed, 36.2% were physically harassed, and 49% were harassed via electronic devices.  61.6% of the students who reported an incident said that school staff did nothing in response.  In their summary, GLSEN writes, “schools nationwide are hostile environments for a distressing number of LGBT students, the overwhelming majority of whom routinely hear anti-gay language and experience victimization and discrimination at school.  As a result, many LGBT students avoid school activities or miss school entirely.”  Nationally, LGBTQ youth are still at risk of suicide at three times the rate of straight youth. 

According to Rebby Kern, the Media, Communications, and Program Manager at Campus Pride, the goal when taking the survey is not to try and earn five stars but to “use it as a benchmark of where you stand, create an action plan, and then to hold yourselves accountable to LGBT students.  It’s also an opportunity to create coalitions and task forces around these issues.”

Kern reports that 430 public institutions of higher education nationwide participated in the first survey Index 1.0.  On June 10, Campus Pride released a new version of the Survey, Index 2.0. Since the release of Index 2.0, 160 campuses have already taken the survey.  According to Kern, the new version has the same eight categories, but Campus Pride has expanded the questions to be more in-depth, more comprehensive, and more “trans-inclusive.”  Kern encourages all campuses to take the survey every one to three years, since 80% of campuses achieve many of their goals and then see improved scores when they retake the survey. 

As Santa Rosa Junior College President Chong indicated in his LGBTQ blog regarding the results of our Campus Climate survey, “I knew as a College we believed in fairness and social justice for LGBTQ students and employees.  But beliefs are not enough: there must be action, visibility, and true institutional support.” The LGBT Campus Climate Survey is an invaluable tool and resource for identifying areas of need in order to improve and change the educational experience for LGBTQ students into one that is positive, welcoming, supportive, and safe.  Students’ futures are not just about equal rights like marriage equality, but also about equal educational opportunity along the way. 

 

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