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  • Victoria A. Brownworth

LGBTQ+ Students Face Disproportionately High Rates of Discipline in Schools, Research Shows

July 6, 2022 Philadelphia Gay News

According to the most recent data, about 10 percent of youth between the ages of 13 and 17 identify as LGBTQ. Among queer and trans students, 33 percent report experiencing school discipline of some sort, including principal’s office visits, detention, suspension or expulsion.

This disproportionate treatment is endemic for LGBTQ students, according to GLSEN, the leading national education organization focused on ensuring safe and affirming schools for all students. There are stunning statistics in the GLSEN report, “Educational Exclusion: Drop Out, Push Out, and the School-to-Prison Pipeline among LGBTQ Youth.”

GLSEN reveals, “Two in five LGBTQ students reported receiving detention, in-school or out-of-school suspension and/or expulsion from school. LGBTQ Black/African American, LGBTQ Hispanic/Latino, and LGBTQ Multiracial students; LGBTQ students experiencing homelessness; and LGBTQ students with disabilities experienced higher rates than others.”

In addition, “Compared to cisgender LGBQ students, transgender students were more likely to receive school discipline and over three times as likely to report that they might not complete high school.”

Also, “Among LGBTQ students, the most common reason cited for not planning to graduate high school or being unsure if they would graduate was an unsupportive or hostile school environment.”

While LGBTQ students are the clear victims, they are often the target of school administrators, GLSEN found. “Bullying, harassment and absenteeism may contribute to high rates of discipline. Among LGBTQ students, higher levels of victimization were associated with higher rates of school discipline, potentially because bullying incidents put LGBTQ students in greater contact with school authorities.”

The report explains, “Lack of safety resulted in many LGBTQ students missing school, putting them at risk for disciplinary sanctions for truancy. Students who had missed school because of feeling unsafe or uncomfortable were more likely to have been disciplined at school than those who had not (54 percent vs. 34 percent).”

There were other contributory issues. GLSEN detailed how “Anti-LGBTQ discriminatory policies and practices may also contribute to high rates of discipline. Over half (56 percent) of LGBTQ students experienced some form of anti-LGBTQ discrimination at school, and these students were more likely to have received school discipline than those who did not experience discrimination (48 percent vs. 32 percent). Almost one in ten students (9 percent) even reported being disciplined specifically because they were LGBTQ.”

Ultimately, “Victimization, absenteeism and discrimination may also increase LGBTQ students’ risk of contact with the justice system. LGBTQ students who reported high levels of victimization, absenteeism or discrimination were more likely to have been involved with the justice system as a result of school discipline.”

The stats are staggering. As GLSEN explains, “The likelihood of this involvement was five times higher for LGBTQ students experiencing homelessness than for those who lived with a parent or guardian. Transgender students and LGBTQ students with disabilities were also more likely to have been involved with the justice system due to school discipline.”

There are real students on the other end of these statistics. When Maria Rivera was a student at South Philly High she “was in and out of detention on the regular.” When Toby Michaelson was at Martin Luther King High School, “I was always getting something about my clothes or hair or whatever. Relentless.” When Lisa Schwartz was a student at Girl’s High, she was “in trouble all the time for no reason other than being a butch dyke.”

And as PGN reported in its series on LBT women and prison, problems in school can lead queer and trans women to prison, as the GLSEN report warns.

Rivera, Michaelson and Schwartz have all been out of high school for some years, but each has vivid and painful memories of their experiences as openly LGBTQ students whose dress, hairstyles and outspokenness led to what Schwartz called “targeted abuse” and Rivera called “demeaning treatment” by their school administrators. Michaelson felt that “as an openly gay gender queer Black male I was considered too much for the student body to handle when it was really them who couldn’t ‘handle’ me.”

But each experienced what the GLSEN report shows: Nearly 20% of survey respondents said they were prevented from wearing clothes considered “inappropriate” for their gender, which Schwartz, Rivera and Michaelson all experienced.

Nearly 30% of students said they were disciplined for engaging in public displays of affection for which non-LGBTQ students were not punished. Nearly 23% said they were prevented from using their chosen names/pronouns. Another 17% said they were not allowed to talk about or even write about LGBTQ+ topics in school assignments.

Openly LGBTQ+ students like Rivera and Schwartz, who identify as gender nonconforming lesbians and Michaelson, who identifies as a gender queer gay man, are many times more likely to face discipline in their schools just for their sexual orientation or gender identity.

As GLSEN details, this discipline “can carry dire consequences that follow them for years to come.”

For Schwartz, the pressure was so extreme, it led to a breakdown and a suicide attempt. For Rivera, school became a place of anger and resentment which led to fights and “two suspensions before I realized I was just falling into their trap and it was going to hurt me, not them.” Michaelson said trouble at school led to trouble at home and a brush with law enforcement.

None of them were offered help dealing with the issues they were facing at school from both students and faculty. Yet GLSEN says, “At the school, district, state and federal levels, laws and policies should specifically protect LGBTQ students from harassment and discrimination.”

Also, “Teachers should employ culturally responsive teaching and incorporate positive representations of LGBTQ people and topics into their curriculum.”

Another important element is training faculty and other school employees “to appropriately respond to anti-LGBTQ bias and not discriminate against LGBTQ students.”

Finally, “all staff should intervene when bullying occurs, in ways that do not blame the victims of bullying incidents, and consider using restorative practices rather than only punitive discipline measures.”

The GLSEN data show that this is what LGBTQ students need: “Inclusive policies, professional development for educators and supportive leadership go a long way in protecting youth.”

The full GLSEN National School Climate Survey report is available at

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