Center for American Progress

RELEASE: Hostile School Climate Perpetuates the School-to-Prison Pipeline for LGBT Students of Color
Press Release

RELEASE: Hostile School Climate Perpetuates the School-to-Prison Pipeline for LGBT Students of Color

Washington, D.C. — Today, as President Barack Obama hosts an event unveiling a new White House initiative on young men of color, the Center for American Progress released a report that stresses the importance of including LGBT youth a part of this crucial conversation. The initiative, which looks for ways to address why young men of color are disproportionately affected by poverty and prison, also presents a great opportunity to consider the unique factors exacerbating those inequalities for black LBGT youth.

“It’s great to see the White House begin to tackle the problems faced by young men of color, especially issues of school push-out and overcriminalization that incarcerate rather than educate far too many of our black youth.” said Aisha Moodie-Mills, co-author of the report and Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. “LGBT youth, especially those of color, experience similar challenges with school discipline policies as black boys, so any effort to address these issues will go a long way toward boosting outcomes for LGBT youth as well.”

Last month, the Department of Education released groundbreaking legal guidelines on discipline for the first time to address and reduce racial discrimination and disproportionality in school discipline, which has been found to perpetuate a school-to-prison pipeline for black youth, especially boys. This guidance makes tremendous strides in reporting on the stark racial disparities in school discipline, and CAP’s new report sheds light on the similar impact of hostile school climate and zero-tolerance policies on LGBT youth.

“Until now, most discussions of LGBT youth and school climate focus primarily on bullying and the way that students treat one another,” said Moodie-Mills. “Yet our research has found that school policies and the way that adults in schools apply those policies can also foster hostile climates that derail LGBT youth, or worse, push them out of schools altogether. That’s why it’s critical that we also look beyond bullying to ensure that school policies foster climates that are safe and welcoming for all youth.”

To be certain, peer-on-peer bullying is an important factor that influences school climate and has been linked to poor health, well-being, and educational outcomes. But research suggests that harsh school discipline policies also degrade the overall school experience and cycle LGBT youth and students of color into the juvenile justice system at alarming rates. The role that overly harsh school discipline policies and adults in schools play in fostering a nurturing and affirming school climate is often overlooked. School discipline policies and the application of those rules set the tone for the school environment and shape the experiences for students of color and LGBT youth.

“LGBT youth, particularly those of color, are pushed out of schools and into juvenile and criminal justice systems at alarming rates,” said Preston Mitchum, co-author of the report. ”What’s more, the higher rates of punishment of these youth do not correlate to higher rates of misconduct. We must continue to examine the experiences of LGBT youth in schools, beyond bullying, to better understand why they are disproportionately caught in the school-to-prison pipeline.”

Studies suggest that the actions (or inactions) of adults in schools associated with school climate—issues that go beyond bullying—have the potential to derail youth, particularly LGBT youth, and push them into a cycle of unfair criminalization that has lifelong consequences:

  • LGB youth, particularly gender-nonconforming girls, are up to three times more likely to experience harsh disciplinary treatment by school administrators than their non-LGB counterparts.
  • As with racial disparities in school discipline, higher rates of punishment do not correlate to higher rates of misbehavior among LGBT youth.
  • LGB youth are overrepresented in the juvenile justice system; they make up just 5 percent to 7 percent of the overall youth population, but represent 15 percent of those in the juvenile justice system.
  • LGBT youth report significant distrust of school administrators and do not believe that school officials do enough to foster safe and welcoming school climates.

The report offers the following recommendations to address this issue:

  • Increase data collection
  • Enumerate anti-bullying policies
  • Promote positive behavioral interventions and supports
  • Increase access to LGBT information and resources
  • Decrease the presence of police in schools
  • Include LGBT youth in school reform

Read the analysis:

To speak to an expert on this topic, contact Anne Shoup at or 202.481.7146.