New Briefing Paper Released on LGBT Disparities

School districts across the United States have made significant strides in addressing racial disparities in school discipline, but the same attention needs to be paid to disparities for students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT), a new report argues.

The first step – just as it was in addressing racial discipline disparities — is to start collecting data that illuminates the extent of the problem, the researchers say, adding an extensive review of federal, state and local reporting requirements demonstrates that’s not happening today.

“LGBT students remain largely outside the bounds of available data on education and schooling,” notes the report by The Equity Project at Indiana University (Indiana University School of Education). This data collection gap “makes it impossible to fully understand the extent of the problem, much less generate and evaluate strategies for remediation.”

Previous research has found clear evidence that LGBT students are more likely to experience bullying and verbal or physical harassment than other students. A national study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that adolescents reporting same-sex attraction were 1.4 times more likely to be expelled from school than their heterosexual peers.

Recognizing that the privacy issues are different for LGBT students compared to coding statistics by race, the researchers argue two different federal surveys already administered anonymously by school districts could be modified to obtain crucial data. The “School Crime Supplement” should be expanded to ask questions regarding a student’s sexual orientation or gender identity, and school discipline and harassment questions should be added to the anonymous federal health surveys already in use.

The new report, entitled “Documenting Disparities for LGBT Student,” was released today by The Equity Project after an extensive review of existing studies of the school climate facing most LGBT students.

“We were immediately struck by the fact that there’s just very little concrete data being collected,” said Dr. Russell J. Skiba, the director of The Equity Project. “The failure to collect this information makes it difficult to protect LGBT students from exclusionary discipline or discriminatory harassment. The absence of data also makes it impossible to test the effectiveness of policy changes intended to improve practice for LGBT youth.”

In discussing the critical need for basic data, the researchers argue Congress should move now to outlaw discrimination against LGBT students in public schools by passing a bill introduced last year known as the Student Non-Discrimination Act. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects youth from discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin, and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 does the same for youth with disabilities.

Without such federal protection set in law, LGBT students are deprived “of equal educational opportunity” and school systems are not required to take a more active role in preventing discrimination. Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have moved on their own to prohibit bullying on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity given the federal inaction.

While American public opinion about LGBT relationships has changed dramatically over the past 20 years — and the Supreme Court now has established the right of same-sex couples to wed in every state – high school students may still fear coming out at school and are more likely to experience bullying and unfair discipline.

Even so, the report notes that privacy concerns about disclosing LGBT status appear to be evolving. In addition to collecting more data through anonymous surveys, the report suggests new research is needed to explore the attitudes of today’s LGBT students regarding privacy and participation in school discipline data collection.

“More LGBT students are coming out at school and more studies are pointing to the challenges they face,” said Dr. Stephen T. Russell, Regents’ Professor of Child Development at the University of Texas at Austin. “Excluding questions about students’ sexual orientation and gender identity leaves us in the dark about their well-being, so new approaches are needed.”

The Equity Project, part of the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at the School of Education at Indiana University, works to provide evidence-based information specific to issues of school discipline, school violence, special education and equality of educational opportunity for all students. In addition, the Project provides support and technical assistance to educational agencies seeking to create equitable school systems.