UT’s Stephen Russell Is Advancing LGBT Student Civil Rights


“Please choose one of the following: male, female, unknown.” It’s a variation of a question everyone has come across at some point in their lives while filling out a form, especially when registering for school. Most people think little of the three options, circle their choice, and move on to the next seemingly arbitrary query.

Yet there are at least 20 more possible terms for how students might self-identify. Terms like transgender, non-binary, gender fluid, and gender neutral, to name a few. “Realizing how we do demographic information on forms is pretty important for the way the world is changing,” says UT human development and family science professor Stephen Russell.

Russell is part of a research team that has dedicated its work to examining patterns in discipline disparities, often using federal data. Their latest report argues that there’s a need to improve data collection and reporting of LGBT students’ civil rights, stating “the absence of comprehensive national [sexual orientation and gender identity] information makes it difficult to protect LGBT students from exclusionary discipline or discriminatory harassment.”

“We can’t know what’s truly going on with kids until we start collecting the data,” Russell says.

Through the Equity Project at Indiana University, Russell and a team of researchers began looking at the relationship between secondary schools and LGBT students about four years ago. They were observing patterns like how young men of color are suspended and expelled from schools at higher rates than others.

They also noticed LGBT students were showing up more often in what is known as the school-to-prison pipeline, which refers to the policies and practices that appear to push children out of classrooms and into juvenile and criminal justice systems. Though it’s known that LGBT students are 1.4 times more likely to be expelled from school than their straight peers, that’s about as extensive as data on LGBT students gets. “And without systematic data,” Russell says, “we don’t really have a case to make in terms of civil rights remedies.”

Much of what little data Russell can obtain on LGBT students specifically in Texas comes from the local LGBT youth program Out Youth. The nonprofit offers services to roughly 500 people statewide who must fill out an intake form which happens to leave a blank space for gender identity. Out Youth program director Kathryn Gonzales, BS ’07, MBA ’14, Life Member, says data collection tells people where they should be looking.

“It’s hard to put out a fire you don’t know is burning,” she says. “I’ve always seen data collection as the machine at the hospital that keeps an eye on your pulse. That’s what I feel like we’re supposed to be doing.”

While Russell and Gonzales acknowledge that bullying of LGBT students is still prevalent, they both say that’s not the most common problem kids are reporting. Instead, there are a variety of pathways they’ve seen deter students’ success. Some cases involved schools with zero-tolerance policies for fighting in which kids who are bullied for being gay defend themselves and get expelled because they don’t want to come out to their principal. In other instances, LGBT couples have been suspended for holding hands or kissing while same-sex couples doing the same weren’t.

“It’s my theory that when a youth is sitting across from whomever is going to discipline them, it’s much easier to be harsher when you can’t identify with the person,” Gonzales says.

According to the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network,  only 15 states have non-discrimination laws protecting LGBT students (and Texas is not one of them). Russell’s paper makes the case that data could help kids who experience unequal treatment in school by providing support in legal situations, even in unprotected states. “Parents would be able to go, ‘Look. Here’s the data. This is not just an experience my kid had, but it’s systematic,’” Russell says.

Not all data collection has to focus on negative circumstances—it can shed light on the positive cases, too. Gonzales knows multiple students whose schools are treating them with fairness. She notes a trans student from Dripping Springs who has been more than welcomed onto his school football team (though UIL rules prohibit him from actually playing in games). Gonzales thinks the smaller school district might make it easier “for people at the school to think compassionately first and then think about policy.” But without data, there’s no way of seeing causes and effect.

Russell and his team make a number of recommendations about what they think needs to happen, one being the inclusion of standard measures of sexual orientation and gender identity in school surveys, which some states already do. For instance, the California’s Healthy Kids Survey is an anonymous, confidential survey given to young students that recently added an item for students’ self-reported sexual orientation and gender identity.

Policy-wise, the paper pushes for federal approval of the Student Non-Discrimination Act, which would extend civil rights protections to sexual orientation and gender identity. Russell and his team hope to continue conducting research and also suggest teacher training and ongoing professional development regarding the needs of LGBT students.

For now, the team of researchers will continue studying disparities and how to better prepare school districts. To Russell, the big picture is creating environments where every student has the ability to succeed and be the best they can be, even if it means thinking beyond traditional definitions.

“The entire story of the Civil Rights Movement is that it wasn’t easy,” he says. “But it was in order to ultimately create change that was productive for everyone. I think we’ll look back in 20 years and we’ll say ‘Oh wow. We were in a different place.’”

Photo courtesy KT Kings on Flickr


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