Unfortunately, the school to prison pipeline has become all too familiar, particularly for those students who may be people of colour, impoverished, or otherwise disadvantaged by the current system. LGBTQ students, and particularly transgender students, are also more likely to be disciplined at school, including suspensions and expulsions. As in other cases, these disciplinary actions lead to a lower level of educational attainment and may contribute to the school to prison pipeline. In prison, LGBTQ inmates are also further discriminated against.
GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian, & Straight Education Network aims to have every student be valued and treated equally, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender, and works towards promotion of a safe school environment. They conduct research, develop resources, partner with decision makers and educational organizations, and work to empower students. Recently, they published a report detailing the challenges that LGBTQ students face, as well as suggestions on how to promote the safe environment needed for students to stay in school, and to reduce incarceration for youth.
The report, Educational Excluson: Drop Out, Push Out, and the School to Prison Pipeline among LGBTQ Youth, details a variety of statistics demonstrating the challenges faced by these students, as well as those with intersectional identities, such as also being a person of colour.
Eight out of ten LGBTQ students have been harassed at school, and transgender students in particular are more likely to be disciplined than their peers, with nearly half receiving disciplinary action, including suspension or expulsion. LGBTQ students may be prevented from writing about LGBTQ topics for school assignments, almost 18% have been hindered in forming a GSA at school, 18% were not allowed to attend a school dance with a person of the same gender, and 19% said they had been disciplined for wearing clothes deemed inappropriate for their legal sex. As many as 42% of transgendered students were barred from using their preferred name. Students are receiving harsh punishments simply, in some cases, to enforce gender norms, although they pose no real risk. One case was described as follows, where a gay student added weaves to his hair and was suspended for a week: “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.”
As a consequence of these statistics, which contribute to a hostile and unsafe environment, and can disrupt learning potential, LGBTQ students are more likely to miss or drop out of school, feel isolated, and face mental health and emotional issues.
In part, these high rates of discipline are due to the increasing use of zero-tolerance policies across the board for all students. While in theory they are meant to reduce bullying and unacceptable behaviour, these policies often succeed only in isolating the most at risk students, or unfairly punishing students for minor infractions. In 2009, 1 out of every 9 students had been suspended from school each year. Policies like this then lead to lesser educational attainment, and increased risk of interaction with the juvenile justice system- as of 2010, one in every 444 youth was incarcerated. Out of these, while LGBTQ youth make up only 7% of the population, they make up 15% of the juvenile justice system. These numbers are unacceptable.
In order to reduce these disadvantages and risks of contributing to the school to prison pipeline, a safe and welcoming environment needs to be ensured for all students. We need to decriminalize our youth, and ensure equality when thinking of punishment and consequences, and ensure that some students are not signalled out. Bullying and zero tolerance policies need to be addressed, and staff, teachers, parents, and youth need to be educated on LGBTQ issues and rights, as well as alternative methods of dealing with issues besides suspensions or expulsions. There is no need to increase risk of incarceration by punishing students for actions that do not present harm to others or to the school environment. We should be providing a safe learning environment where these risks are reduced- not where we signal out certain youth and increase their isolation.