Valuing Education Over Incarceration of LGBT Youth

GLSEN recognizes the school-to-prison pipeline (STTP) as an issue that, like bullying, threatens the ability of LGBT youth to receive a quality education (read more here). Below, guest blogger Preston Mitchum, coauthor of the recent Center for American Progress report "Beyond Bullying," highlights current knowledge about LGBT youth and their experiences related to school discipline.

The school-to-prison pipeline is the cycle of funneling students out of school and into the criminal justice system. Last spring, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) released data highlighting racial disparities related to this disturbing trend, generally resulting from harsh discipline policies. The data revealed that students of color and students with disabilities receive disproportionate punishment, often leading to suspensions and expulsions. These disparities overcriminalize youth and perpetuate a school-to-prison pipeline that emphasizes incarceration over education.


Beyond Bullying,” a report recently released by the Center for American Progress, examines harsh school discipline policies and how lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth are affected. As President Obama recently announced “My Brother’s Keeper,” an initiative aimed at youth of color, it is also important to include LGBT youth in this discourse. As conversations addressing how young men of color are disproportionately affected by poverty and prison are unfolding, it is also necessary to consider factors exacerbating similar inequalities for LGBT youth, especially for Black and Latino LGBT youth. 

Hostile school climates pave the way for LGBT youth to spend less time in school and more time on the streets. These hostile climates are not just the result of peer-on-peer bullying but the way adults interact with students. GLSEN’s research suggests that discriminatory practices may also unfairly target LGBT students, resulting in potential push out or drop out of school. As the report highlights, hostile school climates – including harsh school discipline policies – lead to the overcriminalization of LGBT youth:

  • LGB youth, particularly gender-nonconforming girls, are up to three times more likely to experience harsh disciplinary treatment by school administrators than their non-LGB counterparts.
  • As with racial disparities in school discipline, higher rates of punishment do not appear to be attributable to higher rates of misbehavior among LGB youth.
  • LGB youth are overrepresented in the juvenile justice system; they make up just 5 percent to 7 percent of the overall youth population, but represent 15 percent of those in the juvenile justice system.
  • Many LGBT youth report significant distrust of school administrators and often do not believe that school officials do enough to foster safe and welcoming school climates.


These statistics illustrate a growing problem with the criminalization of LGBT youth, often for minor infractions, such as violating dress code policies that create clothing designations based on gender. Several new reforms have been proposed over the past year to allow students to stay in the classroom and out of the criminal justice system. The “Beyond Bullying” report includes information on a federal action that offers guidance for harsh discipline policies. These strategies - the Supportive School Discipline Initiative and Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports - could help prevent LGBT youth from being funneled into prison.

The Supportive School Discipline Initiative, or SSDI, is a joint effort between the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice, whose aim is to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline. The initiative ensures that schools are equipped with alternative strategies - such as positive interventions and supports - to harsh school discipline policies, and emphasizes policies that reduce discrimination in punishment. Although SSDI is fairly new, the initiative has already released guidance to schools on discipline policies. However, although the initiative aims to be far-reaching, more work is needed to make SSDI’s more inclusive of LGBT youth.

A potential alternative strategy schools should consider is Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, or PBIS. PBIS is a general education initiative in which positive interventions are used for behavioral change. It emphasizes reducing harmful behavior, while rewarding positive behavior for students. By teaching social and emotional learning practices, students develop empathy and compassion for peers and teachers. These supportive approaches can help address the root causes of student misbehavior as opposed to just punishing those acts, thereby helping keep students in the educational system rather than being thrust into the juvenile justice system.

Throughout the country, schools should focus on strategies that properly value education over incarceration. The school-to-prison pipeline is an unsettling trend that can be changed if school officials and policymakers focus on alternative strategies to harsh school discipline polices. When students, including LGBT youth, drop out or are pushed out of school, they face an increased likelihood of contact with the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Examining alternatives to current school discipline practices is one way to ensure LGBT youth can excel in safe, welcome, and affirming school environments.


Preston Mitchum was a former Policy Analyst with the LGBT Research and Communications Project at the Center for American Progress. He is a civil rights advocate and legal writing professor in Washington, DC who has written for The Atlantic, Huffington Post, Role Reboot, theGrio, EBONY, and Think Progress. Follow him on Twitter @PrestonMitchum.