LGBTQ Youth & the School-to-Prison Pipeline

By Kaitlin Banner
Staff Attorney, Advancement Project

The school-to-prison pipeline – made up of disciplinary policies and practices that push young people out of school and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems – disproportionately impacts students certain students. In particular, students of color, students with disabilities, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer students (LGBTQ), and gender-non-conforming students (GNC) are bearing the brunt of discriminatory exclusionary school discipline.

In D.C., approximately 15.3% of high school youth identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or questioning. Although data collection about exclusionary discipline for LGBTQ and GNC youth is incomplete, we know that LGBTQ youth are up to three times more likely to experience criminal justice and school sanctions than students who did not identify as such. Students are even more likely to be excluded from school when they fall into more than one of these vulnerable categories. For example, more than 60% of the LGBTQ youth who were arrested or detained were Black or Latino. While LGBTQ youth represent 5% to 7% of the nation’s overall youth population, they compose 13% to 15% of those currently in the juvenile justice system. Many of these students are funneled into the system from schools.

LGBTQ and GNC students experience the school-to-prison pipeline in unique ways. Students report harassment and bias-based bullying (because of their real or perceived sexual orientation or gender expression) that makes schools feel particularly inhospitable. Students are often blamed for their own victimization or bullying, being told if they just act like other students, they wouldn’t get bullied. As one student reported, “When I would tell on a bully… [teachers and administrators] would completely just go on their side and say, ‘oh it’s your fault because you’re just provoking them with your clothing or what you’re wearing all the time’… I think I was treated differently just because I was different from other people and they didn’t want to face the facts that they had a different person in their school… Like they wanted me to act like someone I wasn’t going to be… they wanted me to act like a ‘normal’ person like no feminine clothes or any of that.”

In a school system that over relies on suspension or expulsion, LGBTQ youth are often swept in to the school-to-prison pipeline because of who they are, what they look like and how they express themselves. LGBTQ or GNC youth are frequently suspended or expelled because their sexual orientation or gender identity is seen as a disruption or a challenge to the school’s authority. For example, one person described how a black gay student was suspended for one week for weaving hair extensions in his hair: “He goes to a pretty much all black school, lots of girls have colorful hair extensions… [but] none of the other girls are getting suspended for having hair weaves.”

LGBTQ youth are also often suspended or expelled when they attempt to defend themselves against bullying. In one case, a student was suspended for defending herself: “[after] months and months of harassment she blew up and really hurt another student. She ended up getting extended suspension so, you know, she just dropped out. She was sixteen at the time and just didn’t see the point of that anymore. And she felt like she wasn’t going to be supported in the school.”

Addressing the school-to-prison pipeline for LGBTQ youth requires a nuanced approach – teachers and administrators must work to create a positive and supportive school climate that includes strong anti-bullying measures that don’t criminalize students and push them further down the pipeline. While zero-tolerance policies are often touted as being a solution to bullying, the reality is that zero-tolerance discipline is bad for all students. Zero-tolerance bullying policies subject huge numbers of youth to very severe punishments, and cast such a wide behavioral net that they end up harming the students the policies are supposed to protect. Most importantly, exclusionary discipline does not address the root causes of bullying; it continues the bullying cycle and contributes to the deterioration of learning environments and the alienation of students.

For more information and recommendations, see GSAN School Discipline Disparities Recommendations, available at https://www.gsanetwork.org/files/aboutus/Recommendations_final.pdf.

The "Every Student, Every Day" Coalition seeks to raise awareness about school engagement and school pushout in Washington, DC. This is the fifth in a series of blog posts that describes different aspects of the school-to-prison pipeline. Each post is written by a member of the Coalition, so the series showcases the different perspectives that our members bring to this issue. To learn more about the Coalition's mission and see the current members of the ESED Coalition's Steering Committee, visit http://www.dcly.org/every_student_every_day_coalition.


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