Schools are now responding more consistently to LGBTQ harassment and to aggressive behaviors often termed bullying. Increased attention to the safety of LGBTQ students is indeed positive, but often the policies intended to assure safety have adverse effects for already marginalized students, including LGBTQ students. Students who transgress traditional gender expectations are often hypervisible in the school environment, which may lead to adults and peers naming them the sources of disruption. Additionally, marginalized students are more vulnerable to peer victimization, and efforts to defend themselves put them at high risk for consequences under zero tolerance and other highly punitive responses to behaviors labeled bullying.
In recent years, zero tolerance policies have become a common way for schools to demonstrate that all possible action will be taken to eliminate threats to safety. Since the Guns Free Schools Act of 1994--which required federally-funded schools to establish automatic expulsion policies for students who bring weapons to school--zero tolerance policies have expanded to meet public demand for evidence that school leaders are serious about safety. These policies now apply to a wide range of behavioral issues beyond weapons, such as threatening school personnel or property, drug and alcohol use or possession, and bullying.
It is important to consider why these policies are so appealing. In short, these policies symbolize a "get tough" commitment to address threats to student safety. The "zero tolerance" stance implies that all violations and individual students will be treated in the same way, with the same consequences. One intent, then, of these policies is to eliminate educator bias, judgment, and discretion from the process of applying consequences for violent action in school. If a prohibited act occurs, the student will be removed from the school swiftly regardless of previous behavior records or academic standing, or, ostensibly, identity.
Despite the intended neutrality of zero tolerance policies, researchers investigating implementation and effectiveness of these policies have found inequities in suspension and expulsion data. Historically, students of color have been disproportionately suspended and expelled under zero tolerance policies. In 2012, the Civil Rights Project at UCLA published findings from their analysis of suspension data in 7000 U.S. school districts. They found that 17% of African American students received out-of-school suspension in 2009-2010 compared to about 5% of White students. In 2015, University of Pennsylvania's Center for Race and Equity in Education published findings on their analysis of suspension rates in 132 southern school districts. They reported that Black students in the South are suspended at rates five times or higher than their representation in the student population; in 84 districts, Black students accounted for 100% of suspensions. Himmelstein and Bruckner (2011) examined nationwide patterns of school and criminal-justice sanctions as they affect LGBTQ youth, and they found that "nonheterosexual adolescents" receive punishments by school and criminal-justice authorities that are "disproportionate to their rates of transgressive behavior." That is, LGBTQ youth are experiencing school and criminal justice sanctions more often than their heterosexual and gender conforming peers, despite no evidence that their behaviors are more likely to violate school rules or law.
These patterns of disproportionate sanction raise questions about the assumption that zero tolerance policies apply to all equally. Education scholars have examined the cultural roots of disproportionate suspension and expulsion rates and argued that the persistent problem of students of color receiving discipline more often and more severely than their White peers is evidence of systemic racial and cultural bias against Black youth. Likewise, it has been argued that disproportionate sanctioning of gender and sexual minority youth is indicative of institutional homophobia.
Zero tolerance is ineffective in other ways as well. It only recognizes visible acts of violence between a bully and victim. It over-simplifies the patterns of peer-to-peer aggression that are constantly circulating in schools, and it assumes bullying is anti-social behavior. Bullying and other forms of youth aggression are actually highly social behaviors functioning to regulate the acceptance of difference in the school environment.
Zero tolerance policies do little to solve problems of bullying and other forms of violence in schools. They disproportionately impact the lives of LGBTQ students and students of color, and victimized students who take action to defend themselves become the punished. The results of implementation make clear the existence of institutional racism, heterosexism, homophobia and transphobia. They fail to address the cultural roots of violence and how and why students target one another, and they often push harassing behaviors underground and into spaces that are more difficult for schools to regulate. QuERI's position, therefore, on zero tolerance policies is that they are not in the best interest of LGBTQ students, their safety, and their continued school engagement.
It is not possible to punish away a lack of acceptance and respect between students. Commitment to eliminating biased language and harassing behaviors can be just as strong and intentional without harsh, potentially life-altering punishment. Incident investigation and sanction systems can focus on solutions that prioritize keeping students in school. Consistency with incident intervention and in educating students to reflect on how and why they target or judge marginalized peers can contribute to a more welcoming school. Additionally, proactive approaches to anti-bullying rooted in improving school culture and respecting diversity may begin to challenge the cultural permission many people feel to devalue and target those who are LGBTQ and/or gender non-conforming. Examples of these strategies include LGBTQ inclusive curriculum, challenging rigid gender binaries in school life and curriculum, attention to issues of sexism and sexual harassment, and acknowledging diverse family structures.
We also must begin to look at schools holistically and focus on school leaders. Educating school administrators about how and why marginalized students are vulnerable to targeting for their non-normative identities, expressions, appearances, and behaviors is key to shifting anti-bullying efforts to a proactive approach. School leaders must become wary of pitfalls such as perceiving differences as disruptive, blaming or punishing victims, or insinuating that if students would conform to local norms peer conflicts would not exist. In preparing school leaders, we must raise knowledge about institutional racism and heteronormativity--drawing connections to how this knowledge can inform day-to-day responsibilities like enforcing the code of conduct.
Zero tolerance is not the answer. It has become part of the problem. Threatening and punitive school cultures provide safety for no one. The focus must be proactive: thinking about school culture and examining the ways non-normative students may be excluded from areas of school life. Intervention should be swift and consistent, and accompanied by education and reflection when possible. We must think about the long term-- not only investing in changing school culture over time, but investing in the futures of all students, including the bullies.
*Based on the QuERI 2013 Zero Tolerance Position Statement.