LGBTQ Homeless Youth at Risk, Part 2 of 3

image2The first duty of the government is to afford protection to its citizens yet, despite this truism, government efforts to protect the LGBTQ population only emerged within the last decade. The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 criminalizes hate crimes and includes sexual orientation and gender identity among the protected classes. As of this writing, twenty-two states, DC, and Puerto Rico ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and almost as many states outlaw discrimination based on gender identity or expression. However, these protections are often too little too late; government protection continues to lag behind social evolution.

Common law protections are also primarily a product of the past fifteen years. It was not until 2003–in the US Supreme Court ruling in Lawrence v. Texas–that same-sex sexual activity between consenting adults was decriminalized nationwide. Less than one year ago the Supreme Court required all states to license and recognize marriage between same-sex couples in Obergefell v. Hodges. Both of these decisions continue to be challenged and undermined on moral grounds. Meanwhile, an entire subset of our population are treated like second-class citizens. LGBTQ youth growing up in this environment face discrimination and abuse despite the recent increase in legal protections. LGBTQ homeless youth are particularly vulnerable and need additional protections.

Homeless youth in general are guaranteed the right to access school and support by the McKinney-Vento Homeless Act. As with other federal education legislation, the act requires state and local agencies to implement the specific provisions, which states and local agencies do with varying degrees of efficacy. In Texas, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) delegates McKinney-Vento compliance to Local Education Agencies (LEA). Most states comply with McKinney-Vento through the same top-down approach. The challenge for local education agencies is funding. Ensuring a proper education for homeless youth may involve transportation, housing, food, and other costs that local districts don’t incur on behalf of most non-homeless students. In Texas, again, compliance is funded through a competitive grant, and school districts can also apply for subgrant requests directly from the Department of Education. However, grant and subgrant requests require school districts to know or estimate with some degree of accuracy how many homeless youth are in their district at the time they apply for the grant–a number which may change significantly once the grant funding comes through.

Given the transient nature of the homeless population in general coupled with the challenge of identifying LGBTQ homeless youth, districts need to expend time and resources to make the identifications necessary to apply for the funding that they need to serve these youth. Herein lies an opportunity for school districts to coordinate with state and local advocacy and service organizations that serve the homeless youth and LGBTQ populations. In Houston, Texas, for example, school districts might choose to coordinate with organizations like Covenant House and Hatch Youth. By collaborating rather than attempting to reinvent the wheel, school districts, service organizations, and advocacy groups can share resources and serve the LGBTQ homeless youth population more efficiently, which likely means they’ll be served more effectively. Furthermore, collaboration across organizations broadens the support net for these youth, helping to ensure more positive outcomes.

The US Government is also stepping up its efforts to protect the LGBTQ homeless population. The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness is gathering data and looking to model programs like The Ali Forney Center in New York City, and The Ruth Ellis Center in Detroit. These are exploratory stages, and the government moves more slowly than private actors, but the initiative is encouraging. As community collaboration grows, local, state, and federal government will have more examples of best practices to look to and more data to draw on as they continue to increase protections for LGBTQ homeless youth.

[This article is part 2 in a series of 3 articles on LGBTQ homeless youth. Part 1 identifies origins and challenges for LGBTQ homeless youth. Part 2 identifies federal, state, and local initiatives aimed at LGBTQ homeless youth. Part 3 summarizes best practices and offers a state & local approach based on best practices.]

Zero-Tolerance Policies: The Basics

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Zero-tolerance policies are rules that respond to certain student misbehaviors with pre-determined consequences. Many times these regulations do not grant school officials the flexibility to tailor punishments in light of the circumstances surrounding a given incident.

The popularity of zero-tolerance policies grew during the 1990s as a response to society’s increased concern for school violence. After homicides committed at schools reached a high of fifty-four deaths in 1993, Congress passed the Gun-Free School Act of 1994. That piece of legislation reflected society’s turn towards “get-tough” policies in lieu of its traditional focus on rehabilitative measures. The Gun-Free School Act of 1994 conditioned a state’s receipt of federal funds for their public schools on their acceptance of regulations that required one-year minimum expulsions for students found in possession of firearms on school grounds.

In spite of their initial attempt to address offenses that posed serious dangers, however, zero-tolerance policies were subsequently expanded to include offenses that did not present similar threats. By 1998, the vast majority of public schools were utilizing zero-tolerance policies to address a wide range of topics, including alcohol and drugs. Infractions such as tardiness and dress-code violations are now also included within many of these regulations. The specific policies within zero-tolerance policies vary amongst jurisdictions today, but their continued use is fairly uniform.

Research has cast doubts over the ability of zero-tolerance policies to create a more efficient disciplinary process that helps deter school crime, however. Other criticisms include their inability to help improve academic achievement, deter offenders from future misconduct, and increase school safety ratings. Zero-tolerance policies are also viewed as a significant cause of the school-to-prison pipeline. In light of these findings, many jurisdictions have more recently begun to seek more effective alternatives.

 

Houston School Board Refuses To Ban Suspensions

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Despite the fact that school boards across the country have banned school suspensions, Texas has yet to join the growing trend. Five Houston ISD school board members voted to keep school suspensions as a last resort for teachers who are “deal(ing) with kids who they can’t contain” in pre-kindergarten through second grade classrooms. The rejected plan also included provisions for a team of specialists and $2 million in classroom management training for HISD teachers.

In lieu of the ban, HISD decided to retain school suspensions of second grade and under students as a “last resort.” Of 2,673 reported disciplinary incidents during the 2014-2015 school year, 87 percent involved youth considered to be economically disadvantaged or at risk, and 84 percent were male. 70 percent of the youth disciplined with suspension were African-American even though black youths comprise only 25 percent of the HISD student body.

The school board’s initial proposal was laudable. It proposed the suspension ban as a positive approach to deescalating conflict in classrooms. It called for more accountability and more disciplinary data in an effort to develop school-specific annual plans to reduce misbehavior and rectify inequities. Encouragingly, HISD Superintendent Terry Grier called for a more empathetic approach to discipline, saying, “We understand better now than we ever have before how exposure to early adversity affects the developing brains and bodies of children. We must take a hard look at how we are handling these issues to ensure we’re not contributing to an already stressful situation for these students.” Furthermore, schools with lower suspension rates have been found to have higher achievement rates and narrowed achievement gaps, while schools with higher suspension rates see the opposite effect.

The school board’s decision was not without dissent. Other board members and teachers voiced opposition to suspension. HISD Board President Rhonda Skillern-Jones called suspension an “ineffective” deterrent. Voicing concern for students at-risk for the school-to-prison pipeline, she said, “They go home. There’s nothing at home for them. They come back and it’s even worse. I cannot vote for continuing to perpetuate the pipeline to prison, not just for African-American children, but for any child.”

A similar article appeared earlier this week on Houston Public Media.