Mario Vasquez was only a freshman when a vicious rumor nearly got him expelled from his high school in Lancaster, California.
“Someone made a false accusation to the administration office that had to do with my sexuality,” he says. The rumor? That he had been engaging in sexual acts with another openly gay boy in the school’s restroom. Before conducting an investigation, school administrators disciplined Vasquez by pulling him out of class during state testing, making him attend detention on Saturdays and calling his household, thus outing him to a member of the household who was unaware of the teen’s sexual orientation. Although the investigation revealed that the tipster had fabricated the story, Vasquez never received an apology, and the troublemaker was never disciplined.
“That left a lasting impact on me,” Vasquez says. “I no longer felt safe in school. I felt targeted by other students and the administration.”
Now 20 years old and working with LYRIC, GSA Network and Educational Justice, Vasquez uses his story to illustrate a much larger problem affecting LGBT youth: school disciplinary policies that target LGBT youth, particularly youth of color, which in turn push them out of school and place them at greater risk of ending up in the juvenile justice system. According to a 2011 study published in the Official Journal of the American Academy for Pediatrics, non-heterosexual adolescents “suffer disproportionate educational and criminal-justice punishments that are not explained by greater engagement in illegal or transgressive behaviors.”
Citing data from previous studies, the Gay Straight Alliance Network, Advancement Project and Equality Federation released a report on Monday outlining major recommendations designed to serve as a “call to action” for LGBT and racial justice organizations. The report recommends that such organizations form partnerships to address disparities in school discipline along the lines of race, gender and sexual orientation and to dismantle the “school-to-prison” pipeline.
“The school-to-prison pipeline [describes] policies and practices that push young people out of school, both directly and indirectly,” Thena Robinson-Mock, project director of Advancement Project Ending the Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track said in a conference call with reporters. “These policies include various things, such as underinvestment in schools, implicit and explicit violence, putative ‘zero-tolerance’ practices, the over-policing of schools, and suspension, expulsions and school-based arrests. Together, these policies criminalize our young people. And many of these infractions that young people are getting pushed out of school for are minor violations.”
Robinson-Mock also explained that discretionary-based categories of discipline, such as “willful defiance,” insubordination, disobedience and disrespect that are rather vague and subject to a wide range of interpretation, can disproportionately impact LGBT children, leading to harsh penalties or sanctions.
“For instance, when a student decides to wear something that is gender non-conforming, a teacher or educator could look at that and say, ‘Oh, that child is being defiant. That child is not following the rules,’ when in fact, they are exercising their rights in terms of expressing themselves,” she said. “So what we have been saying, for many years now, is that we need to eliminate those kinds of infractions when it comes to discipline.”
Dress code violations were a constant issue for Kourtnee Armanii Davinnié in school. The 19-year-old youth leader and outreach specialist with the Jacksonville Area Sexual Minority Youth Network (JASMYN) felt she was targeted for gender nonconformity as an out transgender student. She says the lack of respect, including being misgendered by adults, and a lack of cultural competency and concern by her teachers were some of the contributing factors that lead to her erratic school attendance during high school.
Ian Palmquist, Equality Federation’s director of leadership programs, said that ‘zero tolerance’ policies can often lead to disciplinary actions against children who seek to defend themselves from bullies, often doling out punishments without taking into account the surrounding circumstances. Truancy is often a symptom of LGBT youths’ fear for their own safety, and rigid policies simply exacerbate the problem.
“We know that when young people are suspended, even one time, it increases the likelihood that they’ll drop out of school,” Robinson-Mock added.
The report provides recommendations for youth, teachers and administrators as to how they can best combat the school-to-prison pipeline. Among the recommendations is for administrators to adhere to the joint guidance from the Department of Education and Department of Justice, which previously acknowledged the existence of the school-to-prison pipeline as it affects students of color and LGBTQ students. Other recommendations include adopting comprehensive anti-bullying policies, limiting the role of police in schools, requiring cultural competency training for educators and staff, and creating safe spaces for LGBT youth.
“There really is a ‘fierce urgency of now’ when we look at the ways that LGBTQ youth and transgender youth are being treated in schools,” said Robinson-Mock. “We know when there are intersecting identities, that those students are being pushed out at higher rates than their white counterparts. So, in our view, the time is now to amplify these issues…. We believe that by releasing this report we are sparking and encouraging collaboration and raising awareness around why these issues are so important.”
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