We all know that children are the future. When we talk about LGBTQ equality, we often frame the need for equality as a way to create a better world for our children. Unfortunately, our world is a hostile place to many of Florida’s youth -some of whom are under constant threat of being pushed out of school and into prisons and detention centers. It sounds harsh, but the truth is our juvenile justice system is broken - which exacerbates many of the issues faced by our most vulnerable youth. Recently a student in Pinellas Park was arrested after engaging in a fight. He had been suspended 62 times prior. Earlier this year police pulled over and body-slammed a skateboarding 16 year old to the ground, then held him for 12 hours despite there being no grounds for holding him. Right now, a 15-year old student in the Winter Haven area is facing a felony battery charge for “shoulder bumping” a teacher. There is an unfathomable number incidents like these happening all over Florida on any given day, and these stories go unheard and unnoticed.
In addition to the myriad ways the juvenile justice system fails our youth, school policies often feed into the problem. Students who are already struggling at home - with an unsupportive home environment, the impacts of racism, or discrimination based on their gender or sexual orientation - often face higher rates of disciplinary action at school, putting them at higher risk of school push out. LGBTQ youth are twice as likely as their peers to end up suspended from school. This is often called the school-to-prison pipeline.
Sometimes even minor infractions like a dress code violation can lead to suspension from school, putting students at greater risk of engaging in activities that could land them in the criminal justice system. In Pinellas County, students recently protested a policy that bans African Head Wraps after a school official and police officer forced students to remove them, leading to dress code infractions that can quickly lead to higher-level disciplinary action.
According to a new report by the Movement Advancement Project, LGBTQ youth (and in particular, LGBTQ youth of color) make up a disproportionate amount of young people incarcerated in America. LGBTQ youth comprise 20% of all incarcerated youth and 40% of all incarcerated girls. Further, 85% of LGBTQ incarcerated youth are youth of color.
Kourtnee Armanii Davinnie of Jacksonville feels like she could have become a statistic. In a report by the Equality Federation and Youth First, she shared her story of being pushed out of an unsupportive school enviroment and onto the streets. She wrote, “I battled with being in and out of school. In and out on the streets on drugs and doing sex work just to make sure I could survive on a daily basis. Then it hit me that I have a life, and I have so much more potential to do a lot of things that people said I never could, so I beat the school-to-prison pipeline stereotypes.” Kourtnee is working as a Youth Leader with our partner JASMYN in Jacksonville, and is a college student making an impact in her community. Even though studies show it is more effective and more economically sound to provide youth alternatives to prisons, Florida isn’t responding. Many students are not able pull through like Kourtnee did.
It is with these tough realities in mind that we launched our new Safe and Healthy Schools Program to shift the culture so that each of Florida’s 67 school districts adopts comprehensive and nationally recognized best practices for meeting the needs of LGBTQ students and in doing so build a model that can be replicated nationwide. We can’t always ensure that every student will have a supportive home environment, but we can and should ensure that every student is safe, protected, and affirmed at school.
We’re also proud to support The Pledge For Youth to build a movement of people ready to speak out for legislation and policies that would create better, more supportive environments for all our students. Check out the pledge and sign it here.