The current study utilizes survey data from a major metropolitan school district to determine which aspects of the school environment best predict school belonging and to investigate whether these predictors function differently for LGBQ+ youth (n = 422) and transgender youth (n = 36). The study employs multilevel structural equation modeling to provide unbiased estimates of student- and school-level predictors and to allow for interactions between and among predictors. Sixth to twelfth grade students in 19 schools (n = 2,464) provided demographic information and their sense of school belonging, experiencing bullying, relationships with teachers, relationships with peers, participation in school activities, their school’s openness to diversity, and their school’s bullying climate. Additionally, all student-level predictors were aggregated to the school-level and incorporated into the model.
Standardized coefficients from multilevel structural equation modeling revealed that relationships with students (b = 0.41), relationships with teachers (b = 0.34), and participation (b = 0.32) were the largest predictors of school belonging for all students. Although having experienced bullying (b = -0.06) and identifying as LGBQ+ (b = -0.05) were significant predictors, they were far less influential than even the perception of bullying at school (b = 0.1) or perceptions of school diversity (b = 0.13). All school-level predictors—as well as gender (or transgender identity), race, and grade—were non-significant.
To determine if LGBQ+ students’ school belonging was moderated by sexual orientation, individual two-way interactions were run for all significant predictors. All interactions were non-significant, indicating that sexual orientation does not moderate the relationships between significant predictors and school belonging. It is important to note that this sample draws from a very LGBTQ+ friendly school district, and these results should not be generalized to populations that do not have basic protections and other climate supports.
Based on this study, researchers and practitioners should consider interventions and policies that foster the strongest predictors of school belonging: that is, resources should be invested in developing relationships with students and teachers and creating opportunities for young people to participate in their school community. Further, researchers should acknowledge that these investments will aid queer students as well as their peers.