A new analysis shows that lesbian and bisexual girls face 95 percent higher odds for discipline compared to other female peers.

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Lesbian and bisexual students are at a higher risk for getting suspended or expelled from school, according to a recent report from Princeton University.

Based on a 15-year study of nearly 5,000 American children and their parents (called the Fragile Families and Childhood Wellbeing Study), the report revealed that although LGBT youth face increased odds for suspension and expulsion than their peers overall, when the risk was broken down by gender, the odds of discipline were noticeably higher for girls attracted to the same sex.

What’s behind the disparities in the report? We spoke to Joel Mittleman, the author, and a few LGBT advocates to find out.

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What the data (and experts) tell us:

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Lesbian students face almost 95 percent higher odds of discipline than their other female peers, and it’s not just because they’re acting out. In his report, Mittleman estimated that only 38 percent of the disciplinary risk could be explained by the students’ reported behavior.

Mittleman is cautious about drawing conclusions, but says discrimination by teachers or staff could be responsible for the other 62 percent. If that’s true, then this data “challenges the idea” that homophobia is experienced in a gender-neutral way, he wrote.

One theory posed by Mittleman and others is that school staff and administrators may perceive lesbian and bisexual girls as more threatening if they present themselves in a “masculine” or gender nonconforming way.

How does this bias play into discipline? One way, according to advocates, is in bullying conflicts (a 2015 study on LGBT youth found they were 91 percent more likely to be bullied). If a student eventually retaliates against her harassers, she might be the one labeled as the aggressor and disciplined. In schools where police officers patrol the halls, that could even mean an arrest.

“Part of it has to do with cultural conceptions of what it means to be a good woman or a good girl,” said Danni Askini, the executive director of the Gender Justice League, a Seattle-based gender and sexuality civil-rights organization.

What the data don’t tell us:

This report didn’t specify if other factors — like a student’s race — compounded the risk of discipline for LGBT students.

But a breadth of other studies show the same social policing can happen with students of color. Black girls, for example, can be punished for not meeting standards of white femininity, according to a report last year by the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality.

That study found that American adults think black girls are less innocent and seem older than white girls of the same age. They’re also three times more likely than their white peers to be disciplined for bullying, harassment and disruptive behavior, according to another study.

“It’s a form of social control. We still live in a culture that punishes queer people — just like students of color are disciplined at an alarming rate,” said Askini.

Mittleman’s report also did not address the risk of in-school suspensions or detention.

Why this data matters:

“It’s not a well-studied issue,” Askini said.

Before this report, the most recent, population-based study of lesbian, gay and bisexual students’ experiences with discipline culminated 20 years ago, long before same-sex couples could marry in all 50 states.

Washington state law doesn’t require school districts to collect information about sexual orientation from its students. But it would be valuable information if it did, said Nathan Olson, communications director for the state education department.

The data might be scarce, but the issue affects students all the same. Kids who are suspended or expelled from school are also more likely to be incarcerated, a pattern known as the school-to-prison pipeline.

As teens and adults, lesbian and bisexual women are also overrepresented in prisons. Though only 4.4 percent of U.S. women identify as LGBT, they comprise about 42.1 percent of the female prison-inmate population, according to a 2017 analysis of a National Inmate Survey.

Terri Stewart, a United Methodist pastor who runs the Youth Chaplaincy Coalition, runs a LGBT support group at Echo Glen Children’s Center in King County. In order to address biased discipline, she says, school employees have to be aware of what LGBT youth are going through — often depression or social isolation — and create a safe and supportive environment.

“Students are greatly impacted by the way schools lead,” she said.

Rebecca Goldin, a mathematical-sciences professor at George Mason University, provided statistical help for this story through Sense About Science USA.


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