Gay and lesbian teens are punished more at school, by police, study says

Youth who are harassed or bullied because of their actual or
perceived sexual orientation and gender identity or because they
associate with LGBT people are 40% more likely to suffer
disciplinary action and/or punishment than their straight peers.
The following news article is a perfect example as to why we need
comprehensive and enumerated federal safe-schools legislation –
because teachers, administrators and others responsible for the
health and well-being of our children are currently ill-equipped to
deal with the various challenges facing these kids.

Gay and lesbian teens are punished more at school, by police, study

By Donna St. George

Washington Post Staff Writer

Monday, December 6, 2010; 12:05 AM

Gay and lesbian teens in the United States are about 40 percent
more likely than their straight peers to be punished by schools,
police and the courts, according to a study published Monday, which
finds that girls are especially at risk for unequal treatment.

The research, described as the first national look at sexual
orientation and teen punishment, comes as a spate of high-profile
bullying and suicide cases across the country have focused
attention on the sometimes hidden cruelties of teen life.

The study, from Yale University, adds another layer, finding
substantial disparities between gay and straight teens in school
expulsions, arrests, convictions and police stops. The harsher
approach is not explained by differences in misconduct, the study

“The most striking difference was for lesbian and bisexual girls,
and they were two to three times as likely as girls with similar
behavior to be punished,” said Kathryn Himmelstein, lead author of
the study, published in the journal Pediatrics.
Why the punishment gap exists is less clear.

It could be that lesbian, gay and bisexual teens who got in trouble
didn’t get the same breaks as other teens – say, for youthful age
or self-defense, Himmelstein said. Or it could be that girls in
particular were punished more often because of discomfort with or
bias toward some who don’t fit stereotypes of femininity.

“It’s definitely troubling to see such a disparity,” Himmelstein

“It may very well be not intentional,” she said. “I think most
people who work with youth want to do the best they can for young
people and treat them fairly, but our findings show that’s not

The punishments can be damaging, she said. Teens expelled from
school have higher dropout rates, and involvement in the criminal
justice system can affect a range of opportunities, including
housing eligibility and college financial aid.

“I find it tragic, ” said Clara McCreery, 18, co-president of the
Gay-Straight Alliance at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda. “I
wonder if some people misinterpret the way some gay girls choose to
dress as a sign of aggression.”

Stacey Horn, an associate professor of educational psychology at
the University of Illinois at Chicago, called the study important
and compared the findings to racial disparities in criminal
sentencing. “To me, it is saying there is some kind of internal
bias that adults are not aware of that is impacting the punishment
of this group,” she said.

The study brings punishment differences for gay teens into focus at
a time when public concern about torment and bullying is
heightened. In September, an 18-year-old Rutgers University student
jumped off a bridge to his death after his gay sexual encounter was
allegedly filmed by a roommate on a webcam and announced on

Probing the consequences of teen misconduct, the new study examines
behaviors that include lying to parents, drinking, shoplifting and
vandalizing, as well as more serious offenses such as burglary,
drug sales and physical violence.

Using data from more than 15,000 middle school and high school
students who were followed into early adulthood as part of the
National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, researchers
compared categories of misconduct against six punishments. The
interviews used for the study started in 1994-95 and continued
until 2001-02, but researchers said they expect the findings would
be similar today because the institutions involved have not
dramatically changed.

Nearly 1,500 of the participants in the study identified themselves
as lesbian, gay or bisexual, but more than 2,300 reported having
felt a same-sex attraction at some point in their lives. More than
800 were in a same-sex relationship.

The results showed that, for similar misconduct, gay adolescents
were roughly 1.25 to 3 times more likely to be sanctioned than
their straight peers.

The sexual-orientation disparity was greatest for girls. Girls who
identified themselves as lesbian or bisexual experienced 50 percent
more police stops and reported more than twice as many juvenile
arrests and convictions as other teen girls in similar trouble, the
study said.

Andrew Barnett, executive director of the Sexual Minority Youth
Assistance League, which serves 300 teens a year in Washington,
said he was not surprised by the findings.

“This is a symptom of school administrators, teachers, court
officials, police officers – anyone who works with youth – not
necessarily being equipped to handle the challenges” faced by the
teens in their care, he said. “It’s much easier to punish the youth
than to work with them and figure out why they may keep getting in
fights and what is leading to this behavior.”

Hien Le, 17, president of the Gay-Straight Alliance at Montgomery
Blair High School in Silver Spring, said she sees no tendency to
punish gay students in her school. But she and other teens said
parents often become more punitive when they disapprove of a son or
daughter’s sexual orientation.

“Your parents are the ones who are supposed to be supportive, but
it isn’t always that way,” she said.

“I think it happens more than people think,” said Caroline
Callahan, 16, president of the Gay-Straight Alliance at Langley
High School in McLean.

The study’s data set was not large enough to allow for an
additional analysis by race, but Himmelstein and others said that
was an important area for further study.

Jody Marksamer, a staff attorney and youth project director at the
National Center for Lesbian Rights in San Francisco, said the study
brings data to what advocates have seen for years: that biases,
overt and subtle, often play out in courts, in schools and with

Gay youths are often grappling with family tensions and harassment
by peers and sometimes with depression or homelessness, he said.
Harsher punishments can make for “a cascade of effects” that can
“move them from the schools to the criminal justice system.”

Joseph Kosciw, senior director of research and strategic
initiatives of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network,
said that more needs to be done in schools. “I think it really
calls for professional development about how to address” issues
related to sexual orientation, he said, “and how to address
bullying and harassment when they happen.”