The Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, a national group that advocates for LGBT youth in the nation’s schools, says LGBT students and youth of color have been disproportionately impacted by overly harsh school disciplinary practices.
In a statement released earlier this month, GLSEN praised a new Obama administration initiative to discourage elementary and secondary schools from administering student discipline based on race or other discriminatory grounds.
But the GLSEN statement notes that the initiative issued jointly by the Department of Education and the Department of Justice doesn’t specifically reference LGBT youth, raising concern that overly harsh disciplinary practices will continue to funnel LGBT students into what education experts call a “school to prison pipeline.”
This so-called “pipeline,” education reform advocates say, refers to students who land in the criminal justice system, including prison, after being repeatedly suspended or expelled from school. Reform advocates, including GLSEN, have argued that alternative disciplinary approaches should be employed to ensure school safety without overly relying on suspension and expulsion as punishment.
GLSEN has pointed to numerous cases where LGBT students are suspended or expelled for “fighting back” after being targeted for bullying and violent attacks by other students.
“Ending discriminatory practices in school discipline is one of the most critical civil rights issues facing K-12 education today,” GLSEN Executive Director Eliza Byard said in the group’s statement.
“GLSEN commends the Departments of Education and Justice for these long-overdue guidelines that will help to erode decades of policies that have robbed countless youth of a chance to get an education and forced many of them out of school and into the criminal justice system,” she said.
She added, “While the omission of the specific challenges facing LGBT youth is disappointing, we are pleased that the guidelines focus on prevention and intervention strategies by supporting developmentally appropriate and proportional responses to school discipline that encourage and reinforce positive school climate…We encourage the Departments to examine the extent and effects of discipline disparities among LGBT youth and to provide leadership and guidance to ensure that school discipline practices do not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.”
An example of what LGBT activists have called biased school treatment of LGBT youth took place in November when a female transgender student at Hercules High School in Contra Costa County, Calif., was arrested and charged with battery for fighting with three other straight female students.
The transgender student said a fight broke out between her and her classmates, which was captured on video, after she defended herself from repeated taunts and harassment from the three girls. Activists noted that all four students were suspended from the school for fighting but the transgender student, Jewlyes Gutierrez, 16, was the only one arrested and charged in the incident.
The school and the Contra Costa County District Attorney’s Office have declined disclose the reason that Gutierrez was prosecuted in the case while the others were not, saying the matter is pending in juvenal court and they are prohibited from discussing cases involving a minor.
GLSEN has said studies show that LGBT youth disproportionately experience bullying and harassment in schools. The group cites a 2010 study published in Pediatrics, the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, showing that LGBT youth experience a significantly higher level of disciplinary action in schools along with youth of color than do heterosexual youth and whites.
In a statement responding to an inquiry by the Blade, Jo Ann Webb, a spokesperson for the DOE, said the main guidance document released jointly by the DOE and DOJ was a legal oriented document addressing school discipline actions that may violate existing federal laws banning discrimination based on race, color, and national origin.
Current federal law doesn’t include non-discrimination protections for LGBT people.
Web said an accompanying “discipline package” released along with the legal guidance includes “a guiding principles document that specifically includes LGBT students as among those who are potentially at risk for dropping out of school, social exclusion, or behavior incidents.”
She said the accompanying document also emphasizes “the need for schools to consider the impact of discipline policy on all students, including specifically LGBT students, and to make sure they are not being disproportionately disciplined.”
A GLSEN spokesperson couldn’t immediately be reached to determine whether GLSEN considers the accompanying document sufficient to address its concerns about school disciplinary practices pertaining to LGBT students.
In a Jan. 8 press release announcing the guidance document, DOE and DOJ said the school discipline guidance initiative was aimed at helping states, school districts, and schools develop “practices and strategies to enhance school climate and ensure those policies and practices comply with federal law.”
President Obama and most heads of federal departments and agencies in the Obama administration have said that although Congress has yet to pass federal legislation to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, federal agencies would do what they could to put in place policies to protect LGBT people from discrimination.