Sprinkled throughout U.S. classrooms are some 4 million children with parents serving in active military duty. Those students must manage their schoolwork while dealing with the long absence brought about by their parents' deployment — or worse.
In schools across the country, young people who identify as gay, bisexual or transgender face harassment, exclusion, discrimination and even physical violence. At the same time, they're expected to focus on their studies and pass their exams.
These two seemingly disparate groups of students have more in common than most people may realize, and professor Kris De Pedro has made it his mission to improve the outcomes for both. De Pedro, now a professor at Chapman University's College of Educational Studies, has dedicated nearly a decade to researching educational reform policy in an attempt to make schools safe and supportive environments to help children cope with trauma, loss and other severe emotional upheavals in their families or communities.
Earlier this month, De Pedro traveled to Washington, D.C., where he presented his findings at a roundtable forum hosted at the White House. The convergence of university researchers, educators and U.S. Defense Department officials was part of the Joining Forces initiative, a program launched by Michelle Obama and Jill Biden to help support military families and children.
At Chapman, and previously at USC, De Pedro has spearheaded research to monitor outcomes for military-connected youth and develop strategies to help students cope during times of deployment or moving.
"On one hand, military kids are known for their tremendous resilience," De Pedro said. "But there are a lot of difficulties when you move from state to state, district to district, and you're subjected to different standards. Sometimes kids aren't able to graduate, or there are gaps in academic knowledge."
De Pedro stressed the importance of preparing teachers and school administrators for having military kids in the classroom. "Often they get mislabeled as 'special education' when really it's a kid experiencing loss — it's not what special educators call an 'emotional disturbance,'" he said.
But the lessons aren't just applicable to students from military families. De Pedro said that education reforms can help all students, and particularly those facing any kind of trauma.
"Our policy structure is really narrow — it's still focused on academic outcomes to the exclusion of a kid's emotional well-being," he said. "If you're a homeless kid, a reading intervention program isn't going to be the only thing that helps. You also need to eat, have shelter and have people that understand what you're going through."
De Pedro's research on policy to make schools safer and more inclusive could have a particular impact on LGBT youth, for whom protections vary wildly by state. He said that universal anti-discrimination policies are critical.
"We can't leave it up to the states to decide to have anti-bulling laws that include anti-gay violence and discrimination," he said. "There has to be a federal law that covers all states and gives them minimum requirements for schools."
But even in California, which mandates positive representations of gay people in the curriculum and has some of the strongest anti-gay bullying laws, LGBT youth face a great deal of adversity. According to many researchers, including the national nonprofit Mental Health America, LGBT youth experience significantly higher rates of bullying, suicidal ideation and drug use than their straight and cis-gender peers.
"The outcomes, even in California being a supportive state, are still pretty alarming," De Pedro said. "On the surface level, it's getting better, but I think the severe issues of homophobia are still present in our schools."
De Pedro, who said his research between LGBT youth and military-connected youth has revealed unexpected parallels, has decided to formally join the two topics: he's now launching a series of studies at Chapman to look at gay kids in military families.