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DeVos might deal another blow to LGBTQ students

Greg Nash

Since March, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has been holding meetings to consider rolling back critical guidance that outlines schools’ obligations under federal law to administer school discipline in a racially non-discriminatory manner. The guidance, issued by the Obama administration in 2014, sets standards for training and professional development of school staff on discipline and racial stereotypes, and emphasizes positive interventions over school removal and law enforcement involvement.

{mosads}A number of major school districts have since implemented discipline reforms that have lowered suspensions and increased student safety. The impact of the guidance, by instituting a framework to acknowledge and reduce bias that takes a real toll on minority students, reaches beyond racial stereotyping alone. It also serves to create a safer, more inclusive learning environment for LGBTQ students, even without mentioning them specifically. And yet, the DeVos Education Department is considering undoing all of that.  

LGBTQ students, and transgender students in particular, disparately face school disciplinary action and are frequently forced out of school because of discriminatory policies and enforcement. LGBTQ students of color and students with disabilities are even more at risk for suspension, expulsion, and school pushout. LGBTQ students are much more likely to be “dress-coded,” and disciplined for wearing clothing not traditionally associated with the sex they were assigned at birth.

Although it violates federal anti-discrimination law, many schools continue to have gendered dress codes for prom, graduation, yearbook photos, or everyday attire. Such policies make students who do not conform to traditional gender norms much more likely to be targeted for discipline.

Many schools continue to ban transgender students from sex-separated facilities consistent with their gender identity, even though numerous federal court have found such discrimination violates students’ rights under Title IX and the Constitution. In addition to the threat of discipline for using restroom and locker room facilities, transgender students can be disciplined for being late to class because the only restroom they can use is far from their academic courses, or for skipping P.E. because there is no safe locker room they are allowed to change in.

A crackdown on school discipline stands to exacerbate an already untenable situation many trans students face. The Department of Education has already signaled its hostility toward transgender students, first rescinding federal guidance on Title IX’s application to transgender students and then claiming reports of discrimination by trans students denied access to facilities are not within its jurisdiction.

Forty percent of LGBTQ students reported receiving detention or suspension, and transgender students were three times as likely as cisgender queer students to report they may not complete high school, according to a 2016 report from GLSEN, previously called the Gay and Lesbian Independent School Teachers Network. LGBTQ students are disproportionately punished for public displays of affection, for speaking out about queer issues, or for forming student protests or organizations. They are more frequently in contact with school authorities because they have been harassed or bullied, which makes them even more likely to face discipline than students who did not experience discrimination.

These experiences are compounded by discrimination on the basis of race and disability, putting LGBTQ students of color and students with disabilities at even greater risk. In addition to losing class time, the emotional stigma of being singled out, or even bodily harm resulting from physical restraint, school discipline has long-term effects.

An administration that condones harsh school discipline will have severe consequences for LGBTQ young people. As civil rights organizations outlined in a letter to Secretary DeVos on March 22, disproportionate school pushout makes these students more likely to be involved with the juvenile and adult justice systems. LGBTQ youth face greater risk of homelessness, and transgender students face astonishing rates of suicidality, which studies show is made worse by rejection in school.

Access to education is critical to the health and wellbeing of all young people. The Trump administration has continued to send the message that it effectively is not concerned with transgender students, survivors of sexual assault, students with disabilities, or students of color. Even more reprehensible, is that the administration is now using the Parkland massacre as an excuse to roll back civil rights protections for these students.

Despite these attacks on students’ civil rights, the Department of Education cannot remove the underlying federal law that protects students from discrimination on the basis of race, sex, or disability in schools. Civil rights organizations will continue to fight for marginalized students facing discrimination, and schools should continue to evaluate the equity of their discipline procedures and promote training and cultural competency among their staff. The health and wellbeing of LGBTQ students depends on it.

Shayna Medley is a Skadden Fellow with the American Civil Liberties Union LGBT & HIV Project. Her work focuses on educational rights of transgender youth in schools.

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