Zero Tolerance Policies: The Pathways for LGBT Youth to the Criminal Justice System
In the 1990s, schools adopted zero-tolerance policies, which were meant to address school fights, weapons at school, and other issues related to safety. To further deter misbehavior in schools, some states began to increase funding to hire more school resource officers (SRO’s) and installation of metal detectors. Kang-Brown, et.al (2013), goes on to mention that “between the 1996–97 and 2007–08 school years, the number of public high schools with full-time law enforcement and security guards tripled”. As early as 1996, Kang-Brown, Trone, Fratello, & Daftary-Kapur (2013), pointed out that 79% of schools were abusing zero tolerance policies, going beyond federal mandates. Since its inception, zero tolerance policies have led to spike in the number of suspension and expulsions, especially for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgendered) students; however, there has been little evidence supporting claims that it has deterred or resulted in a decline in school violence (Gale, 2015).
Proponents of zero tolerance policies cite there necessity to ensure a safe learning environment, due to the ongoing threat of school violence. They assert that these polices serve as behavior modifiers and strict enforcers that deter violations of school policies to protect students (Gale, 2015). Some also argue that students and administrators are less likely to discriminate against minority students, considering zero tolerance policies have little room for modification (Gale, 2015).
However, recent research has shown, due to the discriminatory applications of zero tolerance policies, LGBT youth are especially vulnerable to school trends that push them out of school and into the criminal justice systems, (Mallett, 2015). As a direct result of the push out of school trends, students have been fed to the school-to-prison pipeline, which is a disturbing national trend where youth are funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems, (Mallett, 2015).
This literature review will discuss how zero tolerance policies have ensued inequalities towards LGBT youth, imposed harsh school discipline towards LGBT youth, increased school suspensions, and criminalized LGBT youth. It will also cover alternatives to punitive sanctions and the conclusion/recommendations for change.
The purpose of this study is to take a deeper look into zero-tolerance policies and how they have contributed to suspensions leading LGBT students to the criminal system. This study will test the unique impacts of zero tolerance policies and teacher unfairness towards LGBT youth. In addition, this study will examine inequalities towards LGBT youth, harsh school discipline towards LGBT youth, alternatives to punitive sanctions, effects of school suspensions, criminalizing LGBT youth and conclusions/recommendations for change. The findings of this study will assist teachers and administrators in examining their school policies to ensure that LGBT students are not disproportionately affected by zero tolerance policies, aide in understanding the unique circumstances LGBT students face and help understand the need for establishing school gay-straight alliances.
Mallett, C. A. (2015), explains how strict school discipline and harsh juvenile court policies have affected many students, disproportionately impacting LGBT youth. Berlowitz, Frye, & Jette (2015) revealed that zero-tolerance policies have a tendency to push students out of public schools into the criminal justice system in a pattern of institutional racism. Their research was supported by interviews conducted with teachers and administrators to attempt to understand their sentiments surrounding zero tolerance policies. These interviews revealed that teachers and administrator see no alternative to their implementation of zero-tolerance policies, because they believe that violent behaviors exhibited by minority students are grounded in cultural norms beyond the control of public educators. Genders & Sexualities Alliance Network, (2012) details the harm caused to LGBT students, by zero tolerance and harsh disciplines in schools. The report concluded with alternatives other than the criminal system that protect students from bullying and create safer school environments.
Inequalities towards LGBT Youth
Several studies have revealed that LGBT youth have disproportionally been affected by zero-tolerance policies. One study in particular conducted by Anyon, Jenson, Altschul, Farrar, Mcqueen, Greer & Simmons (2014) exposed troubling and persistent patterns of disparity towards LGBT youth. They discovered that low-income children, LGBT youth, and youth of color are signiﬁcantly more likely than students of other backgrounds to be referred to school administrators for discipline problems and to receive school suspensions, expulsions, and/or referrals to law enforcement as punishment.
It has not been proven that a higher frequency of punishment correlates to a higher frequency of misbehavior among LGBT youth. This infers that LGBT youth actually face harsher sanctions by school administrators even when committing similar offenses, (Hunt, 2012). Based on interviews conducted by Hunt (2012) revealed “adults in schools often draw assumptions of guilt based on a student’s physical characteristics, demeanor, dress, or mannerisms, deeming those deviating from an accepted gender norm to be agitators”.
A study conducted by Heitzeg (2016), examined the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection report which included data from every public school in the nation (approximately 16,500 school districts, 97,000 schools, and 49 million students). The study unveiled that students of color are suspended and expelled at a rate three times larger than white students (students of color 16%, white students 5%). In addition, Heitzeg (2016), provided the demographics of the nation’s student population in which students of color represent 16% of student enrollment, and make up “27% of students that are referred to law enforcement and 31% of students that are subjected to a school-related arrest”. In comparison, white students represented 51% of enrollment, and 39% of those were referred to law enforcement or arrested. Referencing these statistics LGBT youth, have between “1.25 and 3 times greater odds than their heterosexual peers of experiencing sanctions and inequalities in schools”, (Himmelstein & Bruckner, 2011). This would imply that LGBT youth are between 25% and 300% more likely than their non-LGBT peers to experience some punishment, ranging from being expelled from school, to being arrested or convicted as a juvenile, (Himmelstein, 2009).
An exploratory study, which consisted of focus groups and interviews was conducted by (Snapp, Hoenig, Fields & Russell, 2014). This study was conducted in efforts to provide significant evidence regarding how LGBT youth are disproportionately affected by zero tolerance policies that push students through the school-to-prison pipeline. The narratives received from the focus groups and interviews disclosed that LGBT youth feel that they are under scrutiny in schools, especially when not conforming to gender norms. This scrutiny has resulted in punishment and victimization, which may be ignored or even encouraged by educators and administrators.
Research performed by Kosciw, Greytak, & Diaz (2009) specifically studied the inequalities of LGBT youth based on school characteristics. Their study suggests that schools with larger student bodies, may offer safer climates for LGBT youth. These schools reported a school climate more tolerant of lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth than those in other types of school. Conversely, students that attended smaller, urban schools in low income areas were reported to have higher levels of victimization and more missed days of school for safety reasons than heterosexual youth, (Kosciw,et. al, 2009). Based on the data in the literature one could surmise that LGBT students in smaller, urban schools have a heightened chance incidents involving victimization based on their sexual orientation.
Harsh School Discipline towards LGBT Youth
Zero tolerance policies do not make schools safe, even though many educators see them as “the backbone of school discipline” (Berlowitz, Frye & Jette, 2015). Cuellar & Markowitz (2015) explored the origins of schools adopting zero tolerance policies. They discovered that the 1994 Gun Free Schools Act, a law that requires every school district receiving federal education funds enforce a one year mandatory expulsion for students who possess a firearm on school grounds. It is suggested by Cueller & Markowitz (2015) that the Gun Free Schools Act was the conduit for the pervasive implementation of the harsh zero tolerance policies.
It was also mentioned by Cuellar & Markowitz (2015) that the U.S. Department of Education, the American Bar Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Psychological Association are in opposition of zero tolerance policies and the criminalization of in school offenses. They all have issued policy statements urging zero tolerance policy reforms, which will allow more flexibility in applying punishments on a case by case basis. Cuellar & Markowitz (2015) points out that surprisingly there has still been little academic research on the effects of zero tolerance policies specifically, and school suspension and expulsion more generally.
Unfortunately, aggressive tactics such as increased metal detectors, surveillance cameras and aggressive enforcement tactics by school police and security forces are on the rise. Students of color and LGBT youth are affected the most, (GSA Network, 2012). A greater police presence can “create a prison-like school climate that is unwelcoming to youth, particularly those who already report feeling unsafe and unsupported in their schools” (GSA Network, 2012).
It has been suggested, that School Resource Officers who police schools may be “ill equipped to understand and manage the unique issues impacting LGBT youth and, as a result, unfairly criminalize what is otherwise normal adolescent behavior, or they respond in a punitive manner to emotional issues that are best addressed through counseling” (Mitchum, 2014). In many cases, regardless of the context of the behavior, the punishment is automatically school suspension or expulsion, (Mitchum, 2014). Additionally, a focus group comprised of LGBT students, conducted by Burdge, Hyemingway, and Licona (2014) revealed differential discipline and harsher punishments experienced, partly because staff saw LGBT students as challenging their authority or disruptive. A national survey of LGBT youth, piloted by Lambda Legal, (2016) exposed that 72% of Native American, 69% of African American, and 65% of Latino/a LGBT youth had been sent to detention at a higher rate, as shown in Figure 7.
Effects of School Suspensions
Bradley and Renzulli (2011) developed the construct of the “push out phenomenon”. Their research suggests that “punitive measures culminating in suspension and expulsion combine to systematically push students to drop out of school”. This “push out phenomenon” manifests patterns of institutional racism which “contributes to the disproportionate incarceration of African American males” and LGBT youth alike. Zero-tolerance policies are mechanisms of expulsion and not an effective approach in reducing bullying behavior and school violence” (Bradley and Renzulli, 2011). It was also mentioned by Bradley and Renzulli (2011) that teachers concluded that alternative punishments tended to be “worked out” for heterosexual white, middle-class students in an attempt to appease parents. Conversely, LGBT students and students of color that were considered behaviorally challenging were eliminated from the student population by use of strict adherence to zero-tolerance policies.
Based on studies by Curtis (2014), high dropout rates may be contributed to the harsh disciplines forced by zero tolerance policies. Thus, it appears that these policies may “permanently push students of color and LGBT youth out of schools and add to the school-to-prison pipeline” (Curtis, 2014).
Cueller & Markowitz (2015) also examined the effects of suspension, citing suspensions ultimately lead youth to spend days in the community which may increase the opportunity for them to commit crimes. In addition, Cueller & Markowitz (2015) also concluded that the removal from school could adversely impact a students’ connectedness in school, intensify adverse interactions with adults, increase their feelings of alienation, and increases the students’ tendency to engage in delinquent behaviors Their research linked suspension with the likelihood of students’ dropping out and dropping out has been linked to increased criminal activities.
Unfortunately, exclusions and suspensions have become standard tools for teachers to demand obedience and compliance in their classrooms. Incidents once handled by a trip to the principal’s office are dealt with by police and the justice system, contributing to the climate of suspension and exclusion, (Kupchik, 2012). It must be discussed that the intent of school suspension is to remove problem students from the classroom with the result of student safety and less class room disruption. However, Kang-Brown, et.al (2013), state that the overall success of schools are unrelated to the rates of suspension and expulsion. Also, their research shows that only 5% of national incidents in recent years involve possession of a weapon.
Criminalizing LGBT Youth
Curtis (2014), presents the argument that “the most direct way for students to enter the juvenile justice system is through school referrals, such referrals may result in juvenile or criminal charges and out-of-home placements in secure detention facilities”. When students are first arrested for violating zero-tolerance policies, they frequently receive “fairly minor punishments from juvenile courts, but they also begin to develop criminal records” (Curtis, 2014).
According to studies by Hunt, & Moodie-Mills (2012), LGBT youth are drastically represented in the criminal justice system; approximately 300,000 LGBT youth are detained and/or arrested each year, of which more than 60% are black or Latino. Hunt & Moodie-Mills (2012) concluded that these “high rates of involvement in the juvenile justice system are a result of LGBT youth abandonment by their families and communities, and victimization in their school”, which ultimately places LGBT youth at a heightened risk of entering the school to prison pipeline.
Hunt & Moodie-Mills (2012) research suggests that the system often does more harm by “unfairly criminalizing LGBT youth by imposing harsh school sanctions, labeling them as sex offenders, or detaining them for minor offense, in addition to subjecting them to discriminatory and harmful treatment that deprives them of their basic civil rights”. Hunt & Moodie-Mills (2012) believes this is true because “our nation’s schools, law enforcement officers, district attorneys, judges, and juvenile defenders are not equipped to manage the unique experiences and challenges that these young people face”. In most cases, LGBT youth are subject to harsh punishments that fail to consider if a student was defending himself or herself. For example:
Jewlyes Gutierrez, a 16-year-old transgender student attending Hercules High School in
Hercules, California, who claimed that fellow students bullied her for years, was recently
charged with misdemeanor battery after getting into a schoolyard fight. Despite video
footage capturing the altercation between Gutierrez and three other teenagers, she was the
only student to be criminally charged. The other three students involved only received out-
of-school suspensions, (Takeo, 2014).
A study was performed by Glickman (2016) which specially examined how transgender students are pushed into the school to prison pipeline. Their studies showed that gendered dress codes were the point of entry for transgendered students to enter the school to prison pipeline, due to the fact that choosing one’s clothing is an essential part of gender identity and expression. Glickman (2016) explains that teachers and administrators are more prone to take notice and discipline transgendered student for wearing clothing that does not match their “biological” sex. As a result, transgendered students become disengaged and no longer feel safe at schools, due to this heightened attention. Glickman (2016) studies show that with the lack of acceptance coupled with the lack of comfort has led to increased absences and stress for transgendered youth. These occurrences have resulted in lowered GPAs and standardized test scores.
According to Glickman (2016), statistical research shows that students who do not graduate are eight times more likely to be incarcerated in the future than a student who does graduate. In addition, 48% percent of transgendered students who are suspended, expelled or leave school, experience homelessness. Transgendered students have an increasing risk of incarceration if there are unable to obtain a high school diploma.
Alternatives to Punitive Sanctions
In opposition to zero tolerance policies, Curtis (2014), examined positive approaches to behavior within schools, “programs for diverting students away from the juvenile justice system, community-based alternatives to detention, and ways of focusing judicial discretion on rehabilitation”. He recommended that “schools and juvenile justice systems should use a combination of these approaches and others like them to keep students in their communities and out of detention” (Curtis, 2014).
The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was signed by President Obama in 2016 to provide federal funds for discipline alternatives, like restorative practices and schoolwide positive behavioral interventions, (George (2016). One of these alternate approaches to zero tolerance policies are Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), (Curtis, 2014). Under this approach, teachers and administrators focus on “rewarding and positively reinforcing students’ good behavior rather than imposing harsh and exclusionary punishments for misbehavior” (Curtis, 2014). According to Curtis (2014), as a result of PBIS, the district experienced “a 13.3% decrease in suspensions, a 55.6% decrease in expulsions, and a 31.7% decrease in opportunity transfers”.
Fowler (2011) further explains the efforts and effects of PBIS initiatives, stating that it is a proven model that will show how children perform best when four components are present: they are clearly taught what to do, positive behavior is identified and praised, behavioral mistakes are corrected and effective consequences are implemented. PBIS is similar to academic instruction as behavior is clearly defined, analyzed, and reinforced. Appropriate consequences are given to change identified behaviors based on factual data. Fowler (2011) points out that with PBIS initiatives emphasis are placed on preventing misbehavior before it occurs, and celebrating positive behavior.
Evidence provided by Anyon, Jenson, Altschul, Farrar, Mcqueen, Greer & Simmons (2014) suggests that proactive and preventive behavioral interventions reduce discipline incidents and protect students from suspension and expulsion. Their research suggests that:
Restorative practices may be a particularly effective approach to preventing ofﬁce discipline
referrals and out-of-school suspensions. Restorative approaches that focus on repairing the
harm caused by a discipline incident through classroom circles and mediation with victims
and offenders appear to be particularly promising.
Despite evidence that LGBT students are disproportionately affected by zero tolerance policies and are more susceptible to school suspensions, there exists scant research exploring the correlates of delinquency among this group. The General Strain Theory (GST), identifies victimization as a key influence of youth delinquency and crime, (Agnew, 2006). Hence the GST is aptly suited to explain LGBT delinquency as a result of zero tolerance policies.
The basis of Agnew’s General Strain Theory, is the concept that negative connections and negative experiences result in strain that a person must manage. Agnew (1992) classified three major sources of strain, which can cause deviance:
Failure to Achieve Positively Valued Goals
The first strain is commonly referred to as “classic strain and anomie theories” (Agnew, 1992). This strain is measured in terms of the disjunction between a student’s aspirations and achievements or just outcomes versus actual outcomes. According to the GST, the lack of achievement can lead to many emotions such as frustration, anger or depression to name a few; leading to actions such as delinquent behavior. In addition, when a student feels that there is inequity, it cause vengeance, anger or deviant behavior, which could lead to crime. Agnew (1992), argues that this strain can be resolved with effective coping mechanisms and an extensive social support network.
Removal of Positively Valued Stimuli
Second, Agnew’s GST (1992), concluded that the removal of positively valued stimuli would result in the onset of strain. This would imply that if a student feared an anticipated loss of positively valued stimuli they would be more likely commit school crimes to prevent the loss of the stimuli. It should be noted that a traditional school may be deemed as positively valued stimuli.
Presentation of Negatively Valued Stimuli
The third category of strain involves the inability to legally escape negative or harmful stimuli (Agnew, 1992). His research supports the concept that delinquency is found to occur when an individual is trying to escape the negative stimuli, (Agnew, 1992). Instances of negative experiences cover a wide range of life events that are stressful such as criminal victimization, neglect, harmful relations in school and with peers (Agnew, 1992). Further research has shown that strain experienced from adverse school environments was correlated to an increase in the risk for delinquency (Agnew & White, 1992).
Within this framework, the general strain theory has been used to explain how crime and delinquency manifest themselves in response to various forms of stress. If there are limited opportunities to cope with stress, students are subjected to strain, (Agnew, 1992). Destructive coping skills can possibly lead to adverse consequences such as expulsion and subsequent criminal justice placement.
Zero tolerance policies will be evaluated as a factor contributing to strain of LGBT youth. Zero tolerance policies have resulted in suspensions, expulsions and arrests which can be categorized as potential outcomes of strain. In addition, results from the 2009 School Crime Supplement of the National Crime Victimization Survey show that if unfair treatment is perceived by students it is a higher probability that they will be disruptive and bring weapons to school.
Teachers who establish an inclusive culture where LGBT students are validated as they explore their own gender identities can reduce strain for LGBT youth. From a social justice perspective, educators and researchers can strive to identify and confront the ways that dehumanizing normative gender and sexuality expectations are enacted and supported through school policy (Kim, Sheridan, & Holcomb, 2009). As schools are major organizational structures, they should maintain the safety and integrity of the learning environment, encourage a positive and productive learning climate, teach students the personal and interpersonal skills they will need to be successful in school and society, and eliminate discriminatory behavior of individuals within the school.
The results of this literature review has revealed that there is a consensus that LGBT youth experience a high level of suspensions and expulsions, and are affected more by the increased presence of police officers on school campuses. After a review of the statistics it proves that there is direct correlation to the inflated risk of incarceration for LGBT youth.
Though, there has been numerous studies dedicated to zero-tolerance policies, future work should include more specifics regarding LGBT youth to provide a greater understanding of the critical moments in which LGBT youth may enter various pathways to the criminal justice system.
It has been shown that school “push-out” and academic failure has put LGBT youth on a pathway to the criminal justice system in disproportionate numbers. This review has revealed that it is necessary to provide more support to teachers and administrations on how to successfully manage safe and orderly classroom environments. Although there is no one solution that can address all problems of school disruption, Skiba (2014) offers suggestions how to maintain effective components of a comprehensive program to ensure school safety:
- Behavioral Planning and Improved Classroom Management-Programs such as Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, build the consistency and communication that is critical in effective responses to school disruption. Appropriate strategies for handling misbehavior and teaching appropriate behavior can help prevent minor misbehavior from accelerating into a classroom or school crisis.
- Social Emotional Learning- Social instructional approaches can help establish a non-violent school climate, by teaching students alternatives to violence for resolving interpersonal problems.
- Effective and Ongoing Collaboration-Reducing referrals to juvenile justice and school-based arrests will require collaboration between education, juvenile justice, and law enforcement in order to develop effective alternative strategies.
In addition, it was suggested by Cianciotto & Cahill (2012), that school districts should conduct trainings that address particular issues affecting LGBT youth and children with LGBT parents, to ensure that teachers and other staff are culturally competent in serving LGBT youth and confronting bullying and harassment. Other avenues such as Gay-Straight Alliances (GSA’s) have recently surfaced that provide LGBT youth in school counseling or support-groups or clubs aimed at challenging homophobia in schools, (Russell, Muraco, Subramaniam, & Laub, 2009). Studies by Russell, et. al (2009) suggest that GSA’s do make a difference in schools as it provides a more supportive climate for LGBT students; further, sexual minority students in schools that have GSA’s report lower rates of victimization and suicide attempts.
Skiba (2014), adds to the argument, by taking a deeper look into zero-tolerance policies in which he concluded that increasing punishments create unintentional burdens for LGBT students, families, and communities. Moreover, the data that has emerged from zero-tolerance policy research has overwhelmingly failed to demonstrate that school exclusion and increasing levels of punishment keep our schools and streets safer. Instead, the data suggest that suspension, expulsion, and the increased use of school resource officers are themselves risk factors for a range of negative academic and life outcomes, (Skiba, 2014).
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Russell, S. T., Muraco, A., Subramaniam, A., & Laub, C. (2009). Youth Empowerment and High School Gay-Straight Alliances. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 38(7), 891-903. doi:10.1007/s10964-008-9382-8
Skiba, R. J. (2014). The failure of zero tolerance. Reclaiming Children and Youth, 22(4), 27-33. Retrieved from https://une.idm.oclc.org/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.une.idm.oclc.org/docview/1658765668?accountid=12756
Snapp, S. D., Hoenig, J. M., Fields, A., & Russell, S. T. (2014). Messy, Butch, and Queer: LGBTQ Youth and the School-to-Prison Pipeline. Journal of Adolescent Research, 30(1), 57-82. doi:10.1177/0743558414557625.
Takeo, R. (2014, January 09). Hercules Transgender Teen Charged With Battery After Fighting Back Against Bullies. Retrieved October 10, 2017, from http://sanfrancisco.cbslocal.com/2014/01/09/hercules-transgender-teen-charged-with-battery-after-fighting-back-against-bullies/
Zero Tolerance Policies. (2015). In Opposing Viewpoints Online Collection. Detroit: Gale. Retrieved from https://une.idm.oclc.org/login?url=http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/PC3010999050/OVIC?u=bidd97564&xid=c8263859
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