Evaluating Litigation as a Structural Strategy for Addressing Bias-Based Bullying Among Youth

By Mark L. Hatzenbuehler, Sarah McKetta, Robert Kim, Solomon Leung, Seth J. Prins, Stephen T. Russell in Decarceral public health

October 11, 2021


October 11, 2021


12:00 AM


Homophobic bullying—which is motivated by actual or perceived sexual orientation—is a common experience among youth and is more strongly associated with adverse outcomes than bullying unrelated to bias. Yet current approaches to reducing homophobic bullying either lack empirical evidence or encounter significant obstacles. Thus, the field requires the identification of strategies that hold promise for reducing homophobic bullying.To examine whether litigation is associated with reductions in homophobic bullying.In this quasi-experimental study, difference-in-difference analysis was used to estimate the association between litigation and homophobic bullying, comparing students in schools that experienced litigation with students in schools that did not experience litigation, controlling for individual and school characteristics, study year, and county. Survey responses came from high school students from 499 schools participating in the California Healthy Kids Survey, the largest statewide survey of youth risk behaviors and protective factors, between 2001 and 2016. Legal data were collected from September 2018 to September 2019, and data were analyzed from February 2020 to April 2021.Outcomes of litigation related to sexual orientation–based harassment and discrimination in California schools occurring after 2000.Student reports of homophobic bullying.Of 1 448 778 included participants, 706 258 (48.7%) were male, 563 973 (38.9%) were White, and the mean (SD) age was 14.6 (1.7) years. For cases where the plaintiff (student) secured monetary and/or injunctive relief through settlement or court decision, there was a 23% reduction in the ratio of odds ratios (ROR) of homophobic bullying in schools directly involved in the litigation relative to schools that did not experience litigation (ROR, 0.77; 95% CI, 0.68-0.86). These benefits of litigation spilled over into schools in the same district as the schools experiencing litigation (ROR, 0.76; 95% CI, 0.70-0.81). However, homophobic bullying slightly increased in the school and district where the defendant (school) avoided adverse legal consequences, suggesting potential backlash.Litigation seeking to address alleged violations of the rights of students who are (or are perceived to be) lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender under laws prohibiting harassment or discrimination may lead to reductions in rates of homophobic bullying, with effect sizes comparable with that of resource-intensive school-based bullying interventions. These findings set the stage for future studies to evaluate the consequences of different litigation efforts aimed at redressing stigma-based harms among youth.

Posted on:
October 11, 2021
2 minute read, 371 words
Decarceral public health
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