Is Our Educational System Criminalizing LGBTQ Students?

A gender nonconforming young person.

Messy, Butch, and Queer: LGBTQ Youth and the School-to-Prison Pipeline,” (abstract). Shannon D. Snapp, Jennifer M. Hoenig, Amanda Fields, and Stephen T. Russell. Journal of Adolescent Research. Vol. 30, No. 1 (2015).

What it’s about: Noting that prior research shows disparate treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning (LGBTQ), and gender non-conforming youth in schools may push them into the juvenile justice system, researchers Snapp, Hoenig, Fields, and Russell sought to understand how and why these young people are treated differently. To explore this, they conducted focus groups with 31 young people from Arizona, California, and Georgia high schools; and they conducted interviews with 19 adult youth advocates from across the United States.

[Read about promising practices and common shortcomings in programs serving LGBTQ homeless youth.]

Why read it: Previous studies have documented that zero-tolerance discipline, including punishments such as suspension and expulsion for offenses like truancy and fighting, has created a “school-to-prison pipeline” disproportionately affecting youth of color and those with disabilities, Snapp et al. write. However, there is a lack of research examining this link in LGBTQ youth, despite the fact that they are overrepresented in detention and twice as likely as their heterosexual peers to be detained for non-violent offenses. Through this exploratory study, the authors hope to facilitate better understanding of the disciplinary disparities and other pathways that may push LGBTQ youth out of school (referred to in the research as “school push-out") and into the juvenile justice system.

[Learn how schools can become supportive places for LGBTQ youth.]

Biggest takeaways from the research: Snapp et al. discovered four narratives that created challenges to LGBTQ young people’s engagement in school, and pathways into the juvenile justice system.

  1. Being Labeled as “Problem” Youth. Teachers and administrators often label gender non-conforming young people as being “problems” based on criticism of their attire and mannerisms. For example, young people experiencing bullying for their different gender expressions are often blamed for it, Snapp et al. found.
  2. Punishment for Public Displays of Affection (PDA) and Self-Expression. While opposite-sex couples are allowed free expression of affection, young people in the study noted that same-sex friendships were heavily scrutinized. One young person stated, “They tell my two [same sex] friends no PDA, and there’s another couple who’s full-blown making out and it’s okay because they’re different sex.” A young woman was suspended simply for the rumor that she had kissed another girl.
  3. Punishment for Protecting Themselves. The researchers noted that school climates that are inhospitable to LGBTQ youth, and the resulting mistrust youth feel toward authority figures who fail to support them is an additional pathway toward school push-out. LGBTQ young people who respond to bullying by fighting back may fend off threats from other students, but they are likely to be punished through suspension or expulsion. Some LGBTQ students may simply elect not to return to school.
  4. Pushed Out by Multiple Factors. Participants indicated that often LGBTQ youth are pushed out of school and into the justice system by cumulative factors. For example, young people who stay out of school may be detained by law enforcement authorities, leading to juvenile detention. Young people may be kicked out of their homes for their sexuality and be detained for being on the street. Once young people are on the street, education is no longer their priority while they try to find ways to survive.

[Learn how you can help LGBTQ youth envision a bright future.]

The authors write that their study is one of the first of its kind, and that results did appear to support claims that LGBTQ youth receive disproportionate punishment in schools. They suggest that such discipline pushes young people away from school and into the prison system, and highlight how knowledge of these problems may allow schools to help stop the flow of marginalized young people into prison. Snapp et al. advise that more investigation is necessary, including recruiting youth from the general public, as well as attention to other groups in the prison pipeline such as pregnant and parenting teens and undocumented youth.

Additional References: Look for more articles about LGBTQ youth and education in our digital library.

Published by the U.S. Department of Education in 2014, Guiding Principles: A Resource Guide for Improving School Climate and Discipline (PDF, 1,296KB) offers tips for creating a positive school climate for all students. The document is available in a number of languages.

Access a free curriculum by the Trevor Project that helps youth workers train peer "lifeguards" to prevent suicide among their LGBTQ peers.

Read about more research suggesting ways that LGBTQ young people can overcome barriers to using social services.

View a 3-part video series offering tips on best practices for providers serving LGBTQ homeless youth.

Publications discussed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Clearinghouse on Families and Youth, the Family and Youth Services Bureau, or the Administration for Children and Families.

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