Zero Tolerance for Biased School Disciplinary Policies, Practices, and Enforcement

Harsh school discipline is often employed by school staff in an attempt to limit disruptions to students’ ability to learn. For instance, bullying can contribute to a hostile learning climate generally and for particular groups of students, and schools may respond with zero-tolerance or exclusionary discipline policies involving suspension or expulsion. (ISLG’s 2015 Equality Indicators Report examined differences in bullying by median area income, finding slightly higher rates of bullying in schools located in census tracts with median income in the bottom quintile, relative to those in the top quintile). In addition, schools may respond to truancy, drug possession/use, perceived disrespect, and other challenges with the same policies and practices.

Unfortunately, these policies are often enforced disproportionately on already disadvantaged student populations. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights has been tracking disparate school discipline practices and enforcement since 1968. Their newest release of data, from the 2013-14 school year, revealed that among the 50 million students enrolled in public schools in 2013-2014, African American students were 3.8 times as likely as White students to be suspended from school. Multiracial students and students with disabilities were also disproportionately likely to be disciplined at school.

A less recognized and less understood phenomenon is how school discipline policies and procedures relate to students of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities. Few research studies speak broadly to the school climate experienced by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) students, including factors related to school push-out and drop-out. Moreover, LGBTQ students may also be people of color, have a disability, and/or share other traditionally marginalized identities or characteristics, which can intersect with and compound factors leading to school drop-out or push-out stemming from gender identity/expression and sexual orientation.

The Gay, Lesbian, & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) has been a vocal champion for increased data collection and transparency around LGBTQ student experiences for more than 25 years. Their recent report, Educational Exclusion: Drop Out, Push Out, and the School-To-Prison Pipeline among LGBTQ Youth,  features original research documenting the pathways out of school for LGBTQ students, including being pushed out of school, dropping out of school, and/or becoming involved in the justice system.

What the GLSEN report unveils may not be surprising; unsafe and unfair school environments are widespread and detrimental for any student, yet may be experienced disproportionately by LGBTQ students. LGBTQ students are substantially more likely than their peers to be harassed or bullied at school.

Disparate and discriminatory treatment of LGBTQ students is also widespread. More than half (55%) of LGBTQ students said they had experienced discrimination at school. In turn, LGBTQ students who face discrimination at school experience higher odds of school discipline. GLSEN found that 48.0% of LGBTQ students who had experienced discrimination at school had been given detention, been suspended, or been expelled from school, compared to 32.0% of LGBTQ students who had not been discriminated against. In fact, GLSEN found that, for many LGBTQ students, disciplinary contact with school authorities began when they were a victim of bullying or harassment.

Unfortunately, discipline at school also puts students at risk of contact with the justice system: 2.2% of LGBTQ students reported that discipline at school eventually resulted in contact with the justice system. Again, GLSEN found that LGBTQ students experiencing greater levels of victimization and discrimination were more likely to have been involved with the justice system than their counterparts. For instance, 4.7% of students with higher levels of victimization based on their sexual orientation had been arrested, appeared before a juvenile or criminal court, or served time in a juvenile or adult detention facility as a result of school discipline, compared to 1.2% of LGBTQ students with lower levels of victimization.

Every child deserves a school environment where they can succeed. GLSEN’s research demonstrates a systemic failure to uphold that ideal. Indeed, over half (57.9%) of the LGBTQ students who indicated they were not planning on finishing school cited “unsupportive” and “hostile” school climates as the reason.

Something, or much, is wrong with this picture.

GLSEN calls out the current climate for LGBTQ students as “unacceptable” and “unsustainable.” In order to improve school climate broadly and specifically for LGBTQ students, it proposes alternative approaches to school discipline, inclusive anti-discriminatory policies, and a commitment to safe schools and learning environments for all students. The U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection and High School Longitudinal Survey have made recent strides by including LGBT-inclusive questions for the first time. In addition, more students than ever report that their schools have anti-bullying policies that protect them on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity/expression. However, the overwhelming majority of students continue to lack such policies, and the recent wave of anti-transgender legislation at the state level demonstrates just how much more work is needed.

No student should have to wake up every day and go to a school where they do not feel safe. We can do better.