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Zero-tolerance policies perpetuate a school-to-prison pipeline for LGBT youth

By Aisha Moodie-Mills| Advisor on LGBT Policy and Racial Justice, Center for American Progress
Thursday, December 13, 2012
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The U.S. Senate held a landmark hearing Wednesday on ending the nation’s school-to-prison pipeline that affirmed that gay and transgender youth also face harsher punishments in schools than other students, which disproportionately pipeline them into the juvenile justice system.

Senator Dick Durbin, Chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights, which hosted the hearing, acknowledged in his opening statement that harsh school sanctions — such as zero-tolerance policies — do indeed have a disparate impact on LGBT youth, just as they do on racial and ethnic minorities. 

He stated for the record that:

Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students are more likely to be disciplined (in schools) and arrested than their peers.

This marks the first time LGBT youth have been officially included in federal efforts to end the school-to-prison pipeline.

According to a report this summer by the Center for American Progress:

Gay and transgender youth, particularly gender nonconforming girls, are up to three times more likely to experience harsh disciplinary treatment by school administrators than their heterosexual counterparts.

As with racial disparities in school discipline, these higher rates of punishment do not correlate to higher rates of misbehavior among gay and transgender youth.

LGBT youth make up 13-15 percent of the juvenile justice system, even though they make-up only 5–7 percent of the population overall, and 60 percent of these youth are black or Latino.

This high rate of contact with the system is due in part to harsh school sanctions often based on their perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.

School discipline policies across the United States have been under heightened scrutiny because of the disparate impact they have on youth of color, particularly black boys. Data released this spring from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights revealed that rigid school discipline policies — which lead to suspensions and expulsions of students for even the most minor offenses — perpetuate a school-to-prison pipeline that disproportionately criminalizes youth of color.

But hidden among these school discipline data are thousands of gay and transgender youth, particularly those of color, who bear a double burden of disparate impact but are rendered all but invisible because this federal data does not include information on sexual orientation and gender identity.

The Gay, Lesbian, Straight, Education Network (GLSEN) submitted testimony that called for measures to collect data on the experiences of LGBT youth with exclusionary discipline and zero tolerance policies:

While many civil rights organizations have the benefit of ample data, collected by the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, to support their contention that students of color are disproportionately affected by zero tolerance and other exclusionary discipline policies, there is a relative scarcity of data on how these policies may affect LGBT students…

This data gap has proven to be a significant impediment to our administrative advocacy efforts to protect the rights of LGBT students – as co-equal with all other students – in schools.  While there are several interdepartmental working groups in the federal government focused on studying bullying of LGBT students (which we applaud) there is no serious effort to examine the extent to which official school discipline policy has similar effects on LGBT students as on students of color. Nor do we know whether a disproportionate number of students of color affected by exclusionary discipline may be LGBT.

Ten other leading LGBT organizations also signed on to GLSEN’s statement. Those organizations were: Family Equality Council, Gay-Straight Alliance Network, Human Rights Campaign, National Black Justice Coalition, National Center for Lesbian Rights, National Center for Transgender Equality, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Action Fund, PFLAG National, The Trevor Project, and SMYAL.

© Think Progress.
This article was published by the Center for American Progress Action Fund.
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