LGBT Kids: Cycles of Suspensions, Homelessness, and Criminalization

In the President’s Corner of the April/May 2015 issue of NWLawyer, Nicole McGrath discussed issues of equity in education, and how awareness of certain issues in how we handle race, poverty, and education in policy has a big impact on the lives of children.

As I read Nicole’s article, I was reminded of the similar challenges faced in the LGBT community and how LGBT children are at enormously higher rates for suspension in schools, punishment, homelessness, and criminalization.

Gay, transgender, and gender nonconforming youth are disproportionately represented in the juvenile justice system. Nationwide, there are estimated to be in excess of 350,000 gay and transgender youth who are arrested and/or detained each year. While these youth account for only 5–6 percent of youth overall, they account for over 15 percent of youth in the juvenile justice system. It is also a startling statistic that of the LGBT youth in juvenile justice, more than 60 percent of those youth are also black or Latino.

These youth are often pipelined into juvenile justice (and then onto adult criminalization) at higher-than-average rates because of abandonment by the schools system, their communities, and their families. Rates of victimization of these youth in schools is high because they are not well protected from harassment and discrimination, and their defensive responses to such treatment is singled out for high levels of suspension, truancy, and other charges that are well-known entries into the juvenile system. As a study by The Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) reported last year, the LGBT student is most often disciplined (including being arrested and charged for assault) for fighting back against harassment and bullying, while the straight bully is often never disciplined.

Our schools, law enforcement officers, prosecuting attorneys, judges, and juvenile defenders are not well equipped to manage the unique experiences and challenges that these young people face. As a consequence, the system often does more harm by unfairly criminalizing these youth — imposing harsh school sanctions, labeling them as sex offenders, or detaining them for minor offenses — in addition to subjecting them to discriminatory and harmful treatment that deprives them of their basic civil rights.

LGBT youth homelessness has been endemic for a couple of decades. Over 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBT. In addition, social services, foster care, and homeless programs are often not set up to handle the needs of LGBT youth specifically, or to protect them from manipulation and exploitation by others on the streets. Once homeless and without proper support services, the LGBT youth becomes subject to further criminalization through truancy, vagrancy, drug use, and the other criminalized forms of conduct that go with life on the streets.

And when these statistics are charted for LGBT youth of color, the rates jump astronomically, compounding the problems. The intersection of multiple minority factors requires special attention and solutions that can be harder to accommodate. But it is our duty to make sure the system does not fail these kids by making the system competent to deal with and accommodate these differences.

My thanks to Nicole for her excellent article and for her continuous efforts to focus our attention on the needs of minority youth.

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