In a case pitting one controversial public policy against another, a Georgia court has found school administrators violated the state’s “stand your ground” self-defense law when they expelled a student for fighting.
The student, identified only as S.G. in court papers, threw the first punch in the January 2014 scuffle — but only after her antagonist had pursued her across the school’s parking lot and backed her up against a brick pillar, according to court records. Her lawyers argued that the resulting expulsion violated state law, which lets someone use force to respond to a threat without having to retreat first.
Georgia’s Court of Appeals has agreed, ruling that the student had the right to defend herself. State law “did not require S.G. to be hit first before defending herself; nor was S.G. required to have lost the fight in order to claim self-defense,” the judges concluded. And they found school officials in Henry County, in the Atlanta-area suburbs, have a policy of expelling students “regardless of whether the student was acting in self-defense.”
S.G.’s lawyer, Mike Tafelski, called the decision a blow to “zero tolerance” disciplinary policies. Critics say many of those policies are enforced in ways that disproportionately affect minorities and disabled students.
“It’s not just Henry County. We see it across the state, where county handbooks conflict with Georgia self-defense statutes,” said Tafelski, an attorney with the Georgia Legal Services Program. With this “very clear” appeals court decision, school districts will need to rewrite their codes of conduct to take self-defense into account, he said.
“If they’re ignoring it and saying, ‘No, we don’t care who started it, we don’t care who finished it, we don’t care who was the bully, we don’t care who was the victim, we just know you were both involved in this and we’re going to discipline you’ – the court has specifically said that is illegal and unlawful, and an abuse of discretion,” Tafelski said.
The school district has asked Georgia’s Supreme Court to take up the case. A.J. Welch, a lawyer for the Henry County school board, said he wouldn’t comment on pending litigation.
Tafelski’s client graduated from high school in 2014 but has pursued the lawsuit to clear her record. S.G. ended up graduating from an alternative school, and she said the expulsion effectively kept her from joining the armed forces, as she had planned.
“If you have a disciplinary record, it’s kind of hard,” S.G. said. In addition, she said she failed the Armed Forces Vocational Aptitude Battery, the military’s skills test for high-school students. In her regular high school, she would have had help to prepare for the test, but that wasn’t offered in the alternative school, she said.
S.G. was also charged with a misdemeanor for fighting in public, but the count was dismissed by a juvenile court judge after she wrote an essay on her future plans, she said. She still hopes to attend college — something that the court decision might make easier.
The fight that got her expelled occurred when she was confronted by another student outside the school building at the end of the day’s classes. S.G. tried to walk away from the argument, only to have the other student follow her. They ended up at a brick post near the school’s front door, where the other student “briefly stepped towards S.G. and came very close to touching S. G. before stepping back,” according to the appeals court’s decision.
That’s when S.G. punched the other girl, knocking her down, sitting on her and punching her until S.G.’s mother — a school employee — pulled her off. Video from a school camera and the testimony of a school secretary supported S.G.’s account, but a school hearing officer expelled S.G. anyway.
The appeals court decision made her happy, “Because I feel like I wasn’t wrong in what I did,” S.G. said. She hopes it will lead to students being “treated fairly and right” in the future, “and that the right decisions will be made when it comes to disciplinary actions.”
Tafelski has challenged similar actions on behalf of other students in Henry and other Georgia counties. In an earlier case, the state Board of Education — to which students can appeal disciplinary action — found students had a right to self-defense, Tafelski said. But it ruled against S.G., who then sued the district. A state judge overturned the expulsion in 2015, and the appeals court decision on May 31 upheld that ruling.
Zero tolerance policies typically involve swift, predetermined punishments — including arrests in some cases — for fighting, weapons or contraband. They’re aimed at deterring classroom disruptions and violent acts. But several studies have found they result in disproportionate rates of suspension or expulsion for African-American and Latino youth, raising the odds of them dropping out or ending up behind bars, while doing little to improve the learning environment. The federal Department of Education has urged schools to rethink those policies.
“What this decision will help do is hopefully make for a fairer process and allow for less racial disparity in how students are being disciplined,” Tafelski said. “It will have that broader impact, assuming the decision stands.”
“Stand your ground” laws became the subject of furious national debate after the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Florida teen shot to death by a neighborhood watch volunteer. The volunteer, George Zimmerman, argued that he had been forced to shoot Martin in self-defense after the two got into a fight, and a jury acquitted him of murder in Martin’s death.
Tafelski said Georgia courts recognized the principle for decades before state lawmakers formally put it on the books in 2006.
“It is controversial,” he said. “But I will say that it’s in the law here in Georgia, and all people — including children in schools — should be able to utilize the law in their defense. That’s what was required in this situation.”
Despite public concerns about youth crime, particularly in schools, research has shown that policies based on incapacitation theory have failed utterly to affect crime rates. In fact, while youth crime rates have fallen significantly over the last 30 years, they have continued to plummet despite recent trends towards community-based alternatives (e.g., the ‘Missouri Model’). The evidence suggests that not only do punitive disciplinary approaches often fail they are also unnecessary. It is particularly troubling, then, to consider the police presence and draconian disciplinary measures that have increasingly found their way into America’s schools.
Schools typically have rules forbidding mobile phone use, profanity and the like. Taken at face value, these rules seem sensible and necessary to ensure order. However, when combined with broad zero-tolerance policies that often mandate inordinately harsh punishments like suspension or even expulsion from school for trivial infractions, breaking such rules can have dire consequences.
For example, a student suspended from classes for several weeks as a result of disruptive behavior may have significant trouble completing missed coursework upon returning to school. Additionally, the youth may well be unsupervised during their suspension. Here, the possibility of gang involvement or exposure to other negative influences can be significant. Youth of color and/or lower socioeconomic status are at particularly high risk in this respect.
Critically, there is often little investigation of causal factors behind students’ “aberrant” behaviors. Many youth act out as a response to previous trauma — sometimes within their families — or as a result of undiagnosed learning disabilities. In such instances, sending them home and keeping them from their studies for weeks at a time seems entirely counterproductive, aggravating rather than mitigating the problems at hand.
Even more disturbing, children are now sometimes subjected to arrest, physical restraint, and even the use of tear gas and pepper spray by police officers and security guards in schools. Media and researchers have identified these trends and the related school-to-prison pipeline, in which troubled and disadvantaged youth are singled out and schooled for a future in prison rather than university or the trades. Actions once viewed as minor transgressions—normal, if annoying, examples of adolescent socialization—have now been criminalized.
Given this untenable situation, it is imperative that other less punitive and more effective strategies for dealing with troubled (or merely troublesome) youth be explored and implemented. These strategies should aim to explicitly benefit students, their schools, and their communities in the long term.
- Less formal mediation is a practical alternative to law enforcement involvement or strict, zero-tolerance responses to misbehavior.
- Academic evaluations should be used to generate individualized plans to address students’ unique needs (e.g., learning disabilities or developmental deficiencies.)
- In addition to identifying students struggling with mental health issues, school social workers and psychologists can work to unmask and address conflicts or instabilities in students’ homes. Recent studies of trauma-informed care support such efforts.
In line with this thinking, California has made significant progress this year with the passage of four bills aimed primarily at keeping at-risk youth in school and out of the criminal justice system. Notably, the legislation calls for community service and other restorative disciplinary tactics to be tried before administrators may suspend students. As well, schools will no longer be able to routinely deny enrollment to youth who have had previous trouble with the law.
While suspension and expulsion can appeal to harried administrators and teachers as “quick fixes” for visible disciplinary problems, the potential collateral negative consequences and costs of these sanctions are clear. It is common knowledge that the less education a person has, the less money that person is likely to earn over their lifetime. Where unaddressed social or psychological co-factors exist, the probability of lower wages—and potential reliance on public funds—seems even greater as troubled youth transition to adulthood.
Finally, consider the expense of incarcerating someone over time versus providing them with needed support early on that could very well keep them out of the criminal justice system to begin with. Clearly, the smart money is on keeping kids—even troubled ones—in class and ensuring they graduate. It is imperative, then, to reframe students’ negative behaviors as just that: childish behaviors that can be addressed, changed, and grown out of; not crimes that must be punished.
This story originally appeared on iWatchnews.org by the Center for Public Integrity
As a national debate heats up over appropriate student discipline, new data from Los Angeles reveal that school police there issued more than 33,500 court summonses to youths between 10 and 18 in three years — with more than 40 percent of those tickets going to children 14 and younger.
The data obtained by the Center for Public Integrity show that officers of the nation’s largest school police force issued the equivalent of 28 tickets every day to students during the 2011 calendar year. The Los Angeles Unified School District totals almost 680,000 pupils; the district’s police force has 340 sworn officers and support staff.
Students ticketed in 2009 through 2011 were disproportionately Latino or African American. Last year, black students represented about 10 percent of the Los Angeles Unified School District but 15 percent of those ticketed. In 2010, black students were 20 percent of those cited.
Latinos, about 73 percent of the district enrollment, represented 77 percent of those cited last year. White students, nine percent of enrollment, were about 3 percent of those ticketed.
This sheer volume of citations, the racial and ethnic statistics and the number of younger children cited have all contributed to a brewing controversy over the role of police in public schools in Los Angeles.
Among those who have expressed concern is Judge Michael Nash, who presides over Los Angeles’ juvenile courts, and has actively supported reforms to reduce police citations for incidents he believes should be handled in schools or through counseling or meetings with parents outside court.
“How much time do our courts have to deal with these kids? I don’t think this has been effective, and it has dealt with them in a superficial way,” Nash said.
Nash, like other prominent juvenile court judges across the country, points to research showing that students who are pulled into court on minor offenses end up at increased risk of going on to more serious trouble and dropping out of school.
The courts, Nash added, “are not there for schools to abdicate their responsibility to work with kids on minor discipline matters.”
In 2009 through 2011, Los Angeles’ school police cited students for a wide range of infractions that include failing to wear a helmet while biking, jaywalking, vandalism, possessing markers that could be used for graffiti, having cigarettes or a lighter or marijuana possession.
Other than tardiness, one of the largest single categories of citations over the course of three years was disturbing the peace. This offense can stem from kids engaging in fisticuffs, but can also include threatening to fight or simply being boisterous or unruly in school or nearby.
Out of 2,378 citations for various kinds of disturbing the peace allegations issued to kids between 10 and 18 last year alone, far more than half — 1,522 — were given to students between 10 and 14 years old, the Center found.
About 30 elementary-school students from age seven to nine, all black or Latino, were also ticketed during this three-year period. Officers also cited several hundred adults each year.
Community organizations in Los Angeles are also analyzing the police statistics, which they obtained as a result of a public records request. The statistics do not include arrests officers made or summons to full-fledged delinquency court. The 33,500-plus citations in the new data represent referrals to what is known as Los Angeles’ informal traffic and juvenile court for lower-level allegations.
Officers with the Los Angeles Police Department and other city police forces that operate in the district also ticket and arrest students. But the Los Angeles Unified School District Police are a constant presence, with officers posted in schools and patrolling nearby. School staff can request that officers get involved in discipline matters, but officers can also make independent decisions at times to ticket students.
District Police Chief Steven Zipperman, who has been receptive to community groups urging changes in how police interact with students, sent prepared comments Wednesday after the Center’s story was initially published. Ellen Morgan, spokeswoman for the school district and school police, said previously that the district had no response to the Center’s findings and that the chief wanted to review the statistics.
On Wednesday, in a written response, the chief said: “A student’s first contact with school law enforcement usually occurs in middle school. Hopefully, the contact is positive and the student learns from whatever mistake was made.”
Zipperman said “a citation is an educational tool,” and so it is expected that middle-school students will receive more citations than older students. He also noted that overall citations were “trending down over the past three years,” with African American students’ citations “trending lower” and white and Latino students’ citations rising in proportion.
The Center found that there was a decrease in tickets to 10-to-18-year-olds from 11,880 in 2009 to 10,172 in 2011. Some of that decrease, according to some community organizers, stems from a decline in daytime curfew tickets after complaints began to bubble up from parents and students.
Zoe Rawson, a lawyer with the Labor-Community Strategy Center — one of the groups that requested the citations information — said the data reveal that nearly a quarter of all citations were issued at the Los Angeles district’s middle schools.
“The majority of youth policed on campus,” Rawson said, “are being cited for conduct that is either non-violent or conduct, like fighting amongst students, that a school must anticipate and has the best opportunity to prevent.”
Rawson, who has represented students in court, said that there are proven methods that schools can turn to that help reduce disruptive behavior without resorting to police citations that include community service penalties or fines of several hundred dollars.
Ticketed students are ordered to appear in court with a parent during regular work hours, which means parents must often miss work, which can provoke considerable conflict within families, Rawson said.
Zipperman, in his written response, said: “School yard fights have been a part of school life for a long time. Many intervention programs are in place but young students do not always follow the program . . . Young students sometimes need a wake-up call so that they will not continue similar behavior as an adult. A visit to a juvenile-court referee should help make the student aware that fighting is not tolerated in society.”
Nash, the presiding juvenile-court judge, said many kids don’t tell their parents about tickets, and never show up in court. Their fines can accumulate into thousands of dollars, and they can face a misdemeanor charge for failing to appear.
Jesse Aguiar, 20, is an organizer with a group called the Youth Justice Coalition. He said he received his first ticket — for being disruptive — when he was at 11, at which time he viewed the citation as a badge of honor.
“It was like a dream come true to me,” he said. “I grew up in a neighborhood where I listened to Snoop Dog and that stuff. When I got a ticket from police, I felt that I was official.”
Aguiar said he went on to get into more trouble, eventually doing time at juvenile hall. His younger brother, Christopher, 16, was ticketed for vandalism last year for “tagging” under a freeway. Christopher said he was just bored and looking for something to do. He was also cited for arriving about an hour late to school.
“I overslept,” Christopher said. “I could have not gone to school, but I had an exam that day.”
The 12 informal juvenile and traffic courts, where “referees” rather than judges hear from kids and decide penalties, are slated to be shut down by June 30 due to a financial crunch.
Once that occurs, Nash said, the plan is to forward students’ tickets to probation officers, who will decide whether the cases merit a conference with parents at a probation office or should be sent to juvenile delinquency court, where students could face prosecutors. Youth advocates are concerned that a trip to juvenile delinquency court will only serve to further “criminalize” student behavior.
Nash said the pending closure of the informal juvenile and traffic courts “is really a golden opportunity for us to all work together to craft a way to deal with this without referral to law enforcement.”
Nash recently took steps to enact reforms inside the informal juvenile courts by ordering that referees there stop requiring students to pay daytime curfew fines, and instead refer students to counseling or community service.
The city of Los Angeles also recently amended its 1995 daytime curfew laws to drop basic fines of $250 and instead require counseling sessions to address root causes of tardiness or truancy and help students make plans to get to school.
Data editor David Donald contributed to this story.
Updated (April 25, 2012, 3:53 p.m.): This story was updated to add comments from Steven Zipperman, schools' police chief.
Photo: Creative Commons, bcmacsac1
Care for a fizzy soda pop with that lunch room meal? How about a thick slice of pizza to add to that loaded-up cafeteria tray? Want a bag of chips or fries with that?
Chances are, many public school kids would say yes to any of the above. It might not be a healthy choice, but rest assured, these foods are served widely in school cafeterias. Unlike other food served in public schools, these goodies – soda, pizza, fries, salty snacks, the items you might find in the a la carte line or in vending machines -- are not subject to the same nutritional regulations.
That is set to change with the introduction of updated federal standards that could be in place by next year.
It is a move that, according to one poll at least, has broad support among the public.
The poll, part of a project called the Kids’ Safe & Healthful Foods Project – a joint project of the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation – found that some 80 percent of those polled want standards regulating the calorie, fat and sodium content in these foods served to kids at school.
In the coming months, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is expected to introduce updated nutritional standards for these foods that are not part of the federal school meal programs.
“Today many children get more than half their calories during the school day,” said Jessica Donze Black, registered dietitian and Project Director at the Kids’ Safe & Healthful Foods Project. “What these new standards will do is set a baseline for nutrition in school so that parents can feel confident that when they send their children to school the options available to them there are as healthy as foods available to them in other environments.”
Such items are often called “competitive foods” because they compete for student spending against more heavily regulated federal school meal programs. In January 2012, the USDA issued new nutritional standards for school meals, but the standards that govern the nutritional value of “competitive foods” are more than three decades old.
Despite national attention on the issue of childhood obesity, student’s access to snack food and beverages has increased over the past decade. The availability of vending machines in middle schools, for example, has more than doubled since the 1990s, the USDA reported.
On a typical school day, about 40 percent of students consume snack food or beverages available on campus, according to the USDA. Such foods were often unhealthy due to high levels of fat, sodium and calories, data from Bridging the Gap, a research program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, found.
Interestingly, the call for increased nutritional standards is largely bipartisan with 89 percent of Democrats, 78 percent of independents and 71 percent of Republicans agreeing on the issue.
The USDA will accept public comments on the proposed regulations for 90 days following their release, with the final standards for snack foods and beverages expected to go into effect in the fall of 2013.
Clay Duda and John Fleming contributed to this article. Stock photo credit: Clay Duda/JJIE
“By the Legislature’s own terms, it has not met its duty to make ample provision for ‘basic education,’” wrote Justice Debra Stephens in an 85-page opinion. “This court cannot idly stand by as the Legislature makes unfulfilled promises for reform.”
In 2009, the Legislature passed a bill meant to reform funding formulas, HB2261, and update the 1977 Basic Education Act by 2018. In Justice Stephens’ opinion, the high court reaffirmed its jurisdiction to oversee the Legislature’s timely implementation of those changes.
“Ultimately, it is our responsibility to hold the State accountable to meet its constitutional duty,” Justice Stephens writes in the opinion. “This court intends to remain vigilant in fulfilling the State’s constitutional responsibility.”
According to the Port Townsend & Jefferson County Leader, Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire, a Democrat, welcomed the ruling and called for a half-penny sales tax increase to further fund education.
“This is not about partisan politics,” Gregoire said during a press conference on Jan. 5, adding that the state sales tax hasn’t been increased since 1983. “This is about stepping up to the challenge despite the tough times and asking, ‘What does the state want to look like when we get out of this recession? Are we going to invest in our future or are we going to compromise things and set our values behind and leave people out, which is not good for them and not good for us?’”
Kirby Wilbur, the Washington State Republican Party chairman, placed the blame on Democrats, noting that the state’s governor’s office had been controlled by Democrats for the previous 27 years.
“Their failure to prioritize state spending on our kids and our future economic health is exactly why we need fresh thinking in Olympia,” Wilbur said in a press release calling the issue a “fiasco.”
Education advocates, including the Washington State Board of Education, called the high court’s ruling a “huge victory.”
Photo by Flickr | designatednaphour
As families continue to struggle during the economic crisis, record numbers of students are receiving free or low-cost school lunches. Department of Education officials reported that 52 percent of fourth graders are now enrolled in the free and reduced lunch program, up from 49 percent in 2009.
Last school year, 21 million students received subsidized school lunches, up 17 percent from 18 million in 2006-2007, The New York Times reports. In that same period 11 states saw increases of 25 percent or more as layoffs severely cut into family incomes. The Agricultural Department reports that all 50 states have seen increases in enrollment.
Students qualify for free lunches if their families have incomes up to 130 percent of the federal poverty level, or $29,055 for a family of four. In a four-member household with income up to $41,348, children qualify for a subsidized lunch priced at 40 cents.
In Rockdale County, Georgia, east of Atlanta, 63 percent of students receive subsidized lunches up from 46 percent in 2006. Officials there blame the economy for the increase.
“We’re seeing people who were never eligible before, never had a need,” Peggy Lawrence, director of school nutrition for Rockdale County Schools, told The Times.
Benjamin Senauer, a University of Minnesota economist who studies the meals program, told The Times, “These are very large increases and a direct reflection of the hardships American families are facing.”
Not all growth in enrollment in the lunch program can be attributed to the economy, however. According to The Times, a new way of qualifying students for the subsidized lunch program, known as direct certification, has also increased enrollment. In 2004, Congress required that all U.S. school districts automatically enroll any child whose family also receives food stamps. In the 2010-2011 school year, 14 million school-age children were in families eligible for food stamps, 2 million more than the 2009-2010 school year.
Photo by Flickr | DOliphant
Educators are reacting to a recent study of Texas public schools that found students who were disciplined were more likely to be involved in the juvenile justice system and do poorly academically. The study, by the Council of State Governments Justice Center, also found that 60 percent of Texas public school students received some form of punishment at least once between seventh and 12th grades.
“Policymakers should be asking if the school discipline system is getting the outcomes they want it to get,” Michael Thompson, director of the center, told The Washington Post. The study was co-authored by Texas A&M University’s Public Policy Research Institute.
Researchers collected data from about 1 million public school students who began seventh grade in 2000, 2001 or 2002. Nearly 15 percent were involved in some way with the juvenile justice system.
“That’s astronomical,” Joe Erhardt, a science teacher at Kingwood Park High School in the Houston suburb of Humble, Tex., told The New York Times. “I’m at a loss.”
While the report doesn’t claim to prove a direct causal relationship between school discipline and involvement in the justice system, “it’s fair to say that school discipline is highly related to these outcomes and strongly predicts these results,” the study said.
In an interview with The Times, Doug Otto, superintendent of the Plano Independent School District, said the data showed that “suspensions are a little too easy.”
“Once they become automatic, we’ve really hurt that child’s chances to receive a high school diploma,” he added.
The study also found that nearly 15 percent of students were suspended or expelled 11 times or more. Of those suspended at least 11 times, nearly half were involved with the juvenile justice system.
How do you reduce the number of kids going into the juvenile justice system? Overhaul school disciplinary policies.
Here's a quick overview of research on the problem, a great video that puts a human face on the issue in Connecticut, and some things you can do.
Just yesterday, the Council of State Governments Justice Center released Breaking Schools’ Rules: A Statewide Study of How School Discipline Relates to Students’ Success and Juvenile Justice Involvement. The report is based on a groundbreaking study of nearly 1 million secondary school students in Texas. (Researchers were able to control for over 80 different variables because they had individual-level records from schools and juvenile court for every single youth in the study.)
Though it's methodologically very careful in its conclusions, it does show that:
- nearly 60 percent of all students in the study were suspended or expelled between 7th and 12th grades;
- African American students and children with "particular educational disabilities" were disproportionately affected -- especially for infractions where administrators had discretion over what sanctions to apply; and
- students who were suspended or expelled were more likely to end up in the juvenile justice system the following year.
But there's grounds for hope, because researchers also found that:
- suspension and expulsion rates varied widely beween schools, even among schools that were similar in terms of their students' racial compositon or economic status.
This suggests that schools can handle behavior problems differently, and with fewer negative outcomes on the youth.
This isn't to say that teachers and school administrators should never suspend or expel youth. However, in the past 30 years, the rate at which students are suspended has nearly doubled in the last 30 years, and removing students from the classroom doesn't actually make classrooms safer or help other students perform better. (My source is Suspended Education: Urban Middle Schools in Crisis, a report released last year by the Southern Poverty Law Center reviewing 30 years of data on the use of suspensions in middle schools. For an overview, see my post, School-to-Prison Pipeline: Middle School Suspensions Unfair and Ineffective.)
Many states are beginning to address the problem. For instance, check out this great video from Connecticut, "Education vs. Incarceration the Real Cost of Failing Our Kids." Follow the link to see the full, hour-long program. (Hat tip to the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance). The first segment is below:
What can you do in your community to address the overuse of school discipline and the school-to-prison pipeline?
1. Download Mapping and Analyzing the Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track: An Action Kit for Understanding How Harsh School Discipline Policies and Practices Are Impacting Your CommunityAction Kit (Hat tip to the National Juvenile Justice Network.)
2. Work with your local juvenile court. Judge Steven Teske of Clayton County, Ga., and Judge Brian Huff of Jefferson County, Ala., have worked with local schools and other partners to dramatically reduce unnecessary referrals to juvenile court from schools. Follow the link to check out their PowerPoint, given at a Coalition for Juvenile Justice conference in 2010. Or, you can see their fantastic presentation on reducing school arrests at a forum hosted by the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance. (Their presentation is 90 minutes long, but I assure you, they are worth watching.)
3. Implement restorative justice in your local schools, which recent research has shown to lower suspension and expulsion rates.
4. Tap the energy of the students themselves. Chicago public school students have organized to advocate for more reasonable discipline policies -- and they're being heard.
What have I missed? Any great strategies or ideas to share? Leave a comment!
The above story is reprinted with permission from Reclaiming Futures, a national initiative working to improve alcohol and drug treatment outcomes for youth in the juvenile justice system.
Just don't use pronouns in public. That's what C.G. usually tells his mother before they go out. Just call me by my nickname.
G. is not obsessed with grammar, but being born a female now living as a male, makes common pronouns like “he” and “she” a complicated issue. The transgender distinction is one that even the most shunned of the gay and lesbian community will often agree has the hardest plight of the oft-embattled LGBT community.
“Being transgender confuses people; it’s harder for people to grasp,” insists G., a 24-year-old from Atlanta, who prefers to be referred to by male pronouns. “People can more easily grasp the concept of gay or lesbian – being sexually attracted to someone of the same sex – but transgender is often an abstract concept to many people.”
Em Elliott, a field organizer for Georgia Equality and the Georgia Safe Schools Coalition -- Atlanta-based non-profit organizations that played an integral role in helping get critical school bullying legislation passed in the state Legislature last year -- says popular culture plays a major role.
“Transgender people have a lot more stigma working against them,” she says. “Over the years there’s been a lot more gay and lesbian characters on TV and in movies, but transgender people are rarely shown, and when they are they’re not usually shown in a positive light. People are afraid of it and they don’t want to know more about transgender people.”
Anneliese Singh, a University of Georgia (UGA) researcher who specializes in transgender issues, says gender identity and sexual orientation are often confused.
“Gender identity is how you identify your gender, versus gender expression which is how you express that gender,” she explains.
G.’s story is typical of others who identify as transgender, an estimated 700,000 people in the United States, according to a recent UCLA study. (C.G. requested that only his initials be used.)
G. first noticed an attraction to females at the age of 15, when a close friendship with a female classmate two years older evolved into a romantic attraction.
“I was kind of like, ‘this is pretty interesting and strange; maybe I’m gay,’” recalls G., then living as a female in rural Richmond Hill, Ga., a small town about a 30-minute drive from Savannah.
It didn’t take long for G.’s parents to catch on. When they confronted her about the relationship, he confirmed being romantically linked to the friend. The news didn’t go over well with them, both die-hard military brass living in a small town.
While deep-seeded emotions of anger, resentment and denial were simmering at home among her parents, the predicament at school reached all-out inferno status. Her secret got out and she was unwittingly shoved out of the proverbial closet for all to see. Many LGBT people describe “coming out” to family and friends as an arduous ordeal, but being the first openly lesbian student at her high school in the Deep South was especially agonizing, insists G.
“People would walk by my desk and purposely hit me in the head with books and none of the teachers did anything to stop it,” recalls G. “One time somebody carved the words dyke and faggot into my car door with keys. It was horrible. I was depressed and suicidal all throughout high school.”
G. contends that his experience was just one example of how transgender people are disproportionately victims of discrimination, violence and hate crimes. Young people are particularly vulnerable in schools nationwide, he says.
A 2009 national school climate survey of 7,261 LGBT middle and high school students youth conducted by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), a national LGBT advocacy group, supports that view. It found that:
- 63 percent reported hearing negative remarks about gender expression (such as not acting “masculine enough” or “feminine enough”) frequently or often at school.
- 61 percent felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation; 40 percent because of how they expressed their gender.
- 85 percent reported being verbally harassed (e.g., called names or threatened) at school because of their sexual orientation; 64 percent felt it was due to their gender expression.\
- 40 percent said they were physically harassed at school in the past year because of their sexual orientation; compared to 27 percent because of their gender expression.
Georgia statistics are similar. Of the 175 LGBT student poll respondents, many reported having experienced physical harassment and physical assault:
- 9 out of 10 reported being physically harassed because of the way they expressed their gender; about 2 in 3 reported being physically assaulted (e.g., punched, kicked or injured with a weapon) because of their sexual orientation.
Singh, the UGA researcher, agrees with G.
“There are considerably less resources available for transgender people in schools and that can make it an especially difficult experience for them,” Singh says. “Fortunately, along with the many challenges they also have a lot of resilience; that resilience keeps them bouncing back. We need to do more in schools to support them.”
It got to a point, G. says, that for safety reasons he arrived at school early and left late in hopes of thwarting further confrontations and harassment.
“I didn’t feel safe,” remembers G. “There was no GSA (gay student alliance) at my school and only one teacher offered any kind of support.”
For these reasons, G. is an ardent supporter of Georgia’s new anti-bullying law passed by the state Legislature in 2010. Starting in August, schools must begin notifying parents when their child is bullied or bullies another. The current policies in local school districts don’t require notification in every case.
Elliot, the field organizer for the non-profits, says the measure is a huge success for Georgia students, particularly those who are LGBT.
“This goes a long way to promote a safe environment in schools,” she says. “This legislation was inspired by the suicide of DeKalb County [Georgia] student Jaheem Herrera, who was relentlessly teased and called gay at his school. That case put a lot of pressure on the state Legislature to address this issue. The bullying policies had not been updated since the 1980s. Jaheem’s ordeal gave us the push that we needed to get it passed.”
The new law:
- Defines bullying more broadly than before.
- Requires local school systems to adopt policies on dealing with bullying.
- Expands the policies to include elementary school students, particularly kindergarten.
- Requires parents to be notified any time their child is bullied or bullies someone else.
- Mandates students who bully in grades six through 12 be placed in an alternative school after the third offense.
G. says having such a law in place during his school days could have made a huge difference.
The Best Buy Children’s Foundation is offering the @15 Community Grants Program. This grant enables teens to thrive by helping them excel in school, engage in communities and develop life and leadership skills. The Foundation offers a number of grants ranging anywhere from $3,000 to $5,000 to nonprofits that serve kids between the ages of 13-18. The deadline to apply for this grant is August 1, 2011.