This year marks the 50th anniversary of Pride. On a regular afternoon in 1970, New Yorkers gathered to hold their own Pride parade, known as the Christopher Street Liberation, to recall the events of Stonewall a year earlier. Today, LGBTQ youths are still gathering, but in a more disturbing place: jail cells.
Their journeys to juvenile detention stem from what many would consider an unlikely place: schools. LGBTQ and gender-nonconforming youths are three times more likely to experience punitive disciplinary treatment by school personnel compared to their heterosexual peers. This statistic is alarming to anyone familiar with the monster known as the “school-to-prison pipeline.”
The school-to-prison pipeline refers to the ways that disciplinary practices in public schools, such as suspension and expulsion, seem benign on the surface, yet function to funnel students into the criminal justice system.
The school-to-prison pipeline disproportionately affects minoritized youths. For instance, Black students are three times more likely to be suspended and expelled than their white peers, with Latinx students being twice as likely. Even when Utah schools report a drop in annual disciplinary actions, racial and ethnic minorities are still overrepresented in the pool of those disciplined.
In addition to race, sexual orientation has come to be known as another factor that contributes to inequitable school discipline and incarceration.
LGBTQ students report being reprimanded by school personnel for their appearance and romantic interests. Wearing jewelry is not a dress code violation — unless you are a boy. Having a fade hairstyle is not a grooming violation — unless you are a girl. Similarly, public displays of affection are not penalized — unless they are occurring with students of the same sex. Dress codes and other nonviolent infractions are ways that schools push out LGBTQ students while simultaneously policing their identities.
School staffers take disciplinary measures to an extreme that exacerbate the issues many LGBTQ individuals already face. For instance, schools may call parents and “out” students without considering the consequences such an action could have. In addition to being pushed out of school, children may now be pushed out of their homes by unsupportive family members.
Utah remains a state with a high LGBTQ youth homelessness rate. Nationally, 40% of youths who experience homelessness and seek aid through agencies identify as LGBTQ. These youths are staggeringly more exposed to law enforcement as they are often forced to engage in survival tactics that the legal system has labeled as crimes.
In addition to missing school due to classmate-inflicted bullying, we now must consider the ways we, as educators and community members, push out LGBTQ youths from safe spaces. Many of us set the tone for how LGBTQ students approach and experience school. Educating ourselves, checking our biases and being ready to acknowledge that schools play an active role in the victimization of youths are a few places to start.
GLSEN, a national organization founded by teachers to protect the rights of LGBTQ students, is another wonderful resource for educating ourselves and loved ones on the needs of LGBTQ youths in our schools and local community.
Sonny Partola is a graduate student and community educator at the University of Utah.