August 19, 2014 at 11:39 am EDT | by Steve Charing
Maryland LGBT youth at risk: report
Aaron Merki, FreeState Legal Project, gay news, Washington Blade

‘There is much work to be done to protect the rights of LGBTQ youth,’ said Aaron Merki, executive director of FreeState Legal Project. (Washington Blade file photo by Steve Charing)

The Youth Equality Alliance (YEA) issued a report on Aug. 12 titled “Living in the Margins: A Report on the Challenges of LGBTQ Youth in Maryland Education, Foster Care, and Juvenile Justice Systems.”

The report found that LGBTQ youth are at a heightened risk of entering the “school-to-jail pipeline.” Public institutions and systems—primarily the education, foster care, and juvenile justice systems—are among the toughest environments for LGBTQ youth. YEA’s report briefly outlines the challenges facing LGBTQ youth as they navigate these three systems, and proposes specific recommendations for addressing these challenges.

The bullying problem that often affects LGBTQ students begins a spiral that places these youth at risk. Often school personnel fail to address the needs of the bullied victims, and they are routinely suspended, expelled and criminalized, pushing them into the juvenile justice systems.

Statistics from GLSEN put the problems in perspective. For instance, 64 percent of LGBTQ students feel unsafe in their schools because of their sexual orientation, and 44 percent because of their gender expression. Approximately one in four LGBTQ youth are kicked out or run away from their living situations.

“This statistic is disproportionate and shocking,” said Ingrid Lofgren, a Skadden Fellow at the Homeless Persons Representation Project, at the unveiling ceremony of the YEA report held at the Enoch Pratt Free Library’s main branch.

Jabari Lyles, who is with the Baltimore Area chapter of GLSEN and a member of YEA, added,  “People have to wonder what is going wrong when they hear that as many as one-third of LGBTQ youth never finish high school and up to 40 percent of our homeless youth self-identify as LGBTQ.”

Dijohn Thomas, a Baltimore area youth advocate, pointed out at the Pratt Library presentation that while in school he was picked on for being gay by his principal and teachers.  “People fear what they don’t know,” he said. “They need education.” He added, “Foster homes are the worst place to be in. I was attacked, beaten up and things were stolen from me.”

The report presents an array of recommendations that would entail mainly policy, regulatory and legislative changes as well as mandatory training for direct service professionals and administrators and the conduct of needs assessments. YEA urges that the office of the governor, state government agency directors, legislators and political candidates read this report and decide what initiatives they will champion to improve the outcomes of these youth.

“When youth enter spaces in which they are to be supervised as well as protected by adults, they expect that professionals will be knowledgeable about individual youth rights and needs, as well as sensitive, respectful, and effective in their interactions with all youth,” Diana Philip, policy director for FreeState Legal Project, told the Blade. “LGBTQ youth in Maryland are no different.”

Formed in May 2013, YEA is a statewide coalition of various service providers, nonprofit organizations, government agencies, and individual advocates that seeks to identify policy and regulatory solutions to problems faced by LGBTQ youth in Maryland. Members include ACLU of Maryland, The Public Justice Center, Equality Maryland, PFLAG, Planned Parenthood of Maryland, Homeless Persons Representation Project, the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), Star Track and the Baltimore Child Abuse Center.

“Although the Maryland LGBTQ community has recently secured several new rights, including marriage equality and the Fairness for All Marylanders Act, there is much work to be done to protect the rights of LGBTQ youth,” said Aaron Merki, executive director of FreeState Legal Project, one of the founding members of YEA, in announcing the report’s release.

The work to achieve the goals and adopt the recommendations in the report is expected to take several years. To view the full report, visit freestatelegal.org/what-we-do/policy/.

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