Given the high rate of torment suffered by LGBT youth in custody, activists applauded last week’s finalizing of a landmark law that took nine years to get from adoption to implementation.
Last Monday, the federal Department of Justice finalized a set of guidelines under the Prison Rape Elimination Act that could help stem the risks of the already at-risk LGBT population that is incarcerated, including minors.
“We were already working on this issue while PREA was being passed, but this raises awareness,” said Sarah Schriber, senior policy analyst with the Chicago-based Health and Medicine Policy Research group and community convener for the Illinois Court Involved LGBTQ Youth Task Force.
According to Schriber, few juvenile detention center personnel even knew what the existing anti-harassment rules were. “A much harder part is making those policies meaningful on the ground,” she said. “We’re really lagging in education.”
Along with anti-harassment policy, the new regulations create federal requirements for employee training and place limits on cross-gender searches and screenings, ensuring they only happen behind closed doors with a licensed medical practitioner.
Much of this work was already underway in Illinois, due in part to a coalition of researchers, lawyers and justice department personnel. In 2010, the Illinois Court Involved LGBTQ Youth Task Force was established to draft better policy for the Illinois juvenile justice system and lead employee trainings.
Two years later, the task force has led trainings for nearly every Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center employee who works directly with youth, educating personnel on policy and broader issues and on definitions related to sexual orientation and gender identity.
Similar workshops are being held for juvenile prisons, run by the State of Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice, as well as Cook County juvenile probation employees.
The issues facing LGBTQ youth in custody are often invisible to juvenile justice personnel and policy makers, because many young people choose not to self-identify, said Mykel Selph, director of the Office of Girls and Gender at Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center.
But a 2010 study by Angela Irvine, director of research at the Oakland-based National Council on Crime and Delinquency, found 13 percent to 15 percent of youth in the juvenile justice system consider themselves gay or gender non-conforming. In the overall population, 5 percent to 7 percent of youth identify this way.
According to a recent report by the Center for American Progress, LGBTQ youth are more likely to end up in the juvenile justice system, likely due to higher rates of bullying and harassment and lower social support at home.
Once in custody, research suggests gay and transgender youth may be more likely to experience sexual assault and harassment.
Research from 2007 by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation found 67 percent of gay or gender non-conforming men reported sexual assault by other inmates, a rate 15 times higher than among heterosexual, non-transgender male inmates.
Some sexual abuse and harassment stems from housing gender non-conforming youth with members of their biological sex. In the nation’s juvenile justice centers, a young transgender woman must still live among young men.
“People assume if you put a transgender female in a female unit, that person will assault others,” Schriber said. “Often it is the other way around.”
In Chicago, Cook County Jail has begun housing transgender women with other women, but Schriber said the policy is harder to change for youth facilities.
“People don’t understand that gender identity is pretty well established early on,” she said. “They think it’s a phase.”
The PREA guidelines mandate that “in deciding whether to assign a transgender or intersex resident to a facility for male or female residents, the agency shall consider on a case-by-case basis whether a placement would ensure the resident’s health and safety.”
But there are smaller changes detention centers can make to create a safer environment, Selph said.
Allowing transgender boys to wear boxers or having every youth in custody wear the same clothing, instead of blue and pink t-shirts, can go a long way in helping a transgender youth’s mental wellbeing, Selph said.
“Homophobia can happen in a very subtle, unintentional way,” Selph said, during a recent gathering of experts and practitioners hosted by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. “When we talk about safety, emotional safety is implied but not focused on in a deliberate [way.] It is emotional safety that is of the utmost importance.”
Christie Thompson is a reporter with the Chicago Bureau
Photo by Advancing Transgender Equality
Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth across America are facing a crisis in the juvenile justice system as a result of harmful discrimination in their homes, schools and communities. Recent studies demonstrate that continued harassment of LGBT youth in their schools place them at a higher risk for involvement with the system. LGBT youth are more likely to skip school to avoid victimization and in the process face truancy charges. Additionally, other LGBT students end up in the system on assault or disorderly conduct charges after they try to defend themselves against bullying by their classmates. In other instances, LGBT youth are disproportionately targeted by school officials for punishment, often referring them to juvenile court for conduct that is more appropriately handled in school. These experiences unnecessarily prolong the involvement of LGBT youths in the juvenile justice system and often expose them to more restrictive dispositions. In an effort to reduce the number of LGBT youth in the juvenile justice system, more must be done to combat discrimination and harassment in schools.
Schools should be a safe haven for all students as well as a welcoming environment where opportunities are not limited by a student’s sexual orientation or gender identity. However, recent events, including an agreement between a California middle school and the Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Education (OCR) and the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice (DOJ), demonstrate that not enough is being done to protect LGBT youth in schools. The agreement between the California middle school and the government agencies followed a complaint from a parent whose 13 year-old gay son committed suicide following chronic sex-based harassment by his peers. The agreement requires the school to research, develop and implement policies that educate students and staff regarding the harmful effects of harassment, as well as educate staff regarding the proper investigation and means of eliminating such harassment. While the result of this agreement is commendable, it raises several disturbing issues relating to the treatment of LGBT youth in schools.
First, while school districts should already be engaged in creating a positive school climate where all students are afforded equal educational opportunities, some are not. Second, as OCR and DOJ made clear in the agreement, they do not have the power to investigate and make recommendations to prohibit harassment or discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. The government is limited by statute to addressing only sex discrimination, as there is no federal statute prohibiting harassment or discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. As a result, while an enforcement mechanism exists to regulate harassment and discrimination in schools, it is not explicit about doing so to protect LGBT youth. Consequently, LGBT youth continue to be at risk for harassment and discrimination in school, which subsequently increases their risk of entering the juvenile justice system. This devastating chain of events can be stopped if federal legislation, such as the Student Non-Discrimination Act, is passed.
The Student Non-Discrimination Act, which is pending in the House and Senate, would prohibit schools from discriminating against students based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Additionally, it would prevent discrimination against any public school student because of the actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity of a person with whom a student associates or has associated. With passage of this legislation, government organizations such as OCR and DOJ would have the authority to investigate and make recommendations to prohibit harassment or discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Such tools would make a significant contribution to ending harassment and bullying of LGBT youth in schools and could ultimately help reduce the number of LGBT youth that find themselves in the juvenile justice system.
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