While several recent suicides have called attention to the harassment and bullying of gay students by their peers, extensive new research also suggests that gay and lesbian teens suffer at the hand of teachers, police, and the courts. A Yale University study published this week found that gay teens are more likely than their straight peers to be punished for the same bad behavior. Here, a brief guide to the "tragic" findings:
How much more frequently are gay teens punished?
Lesbian, gay, and bisexual students are 40 percent more likely to be expelled from school, arrested, or convicted in court than straight teens who committed similar offenses. "It's definitely troubling to see such a disparity," says the study's lead author, Kathryn Himmelstein. The discrepancy was especially "striking" for young women. Lesbian and bisexual girls were stopped by police 50 percent more, and arrested and convicted twice as often as heterosexual girls.
Were the gay teens more likely to act out?
No. Lesbian, gay, and bisexual students were "slightly more" likely than their heterosexual counterparts to report that they'd been engaged in mild and moderate misdeeds, like drinking and shoplifting, and less likely to engage in more serious crimes, like burglary, drug dealing, and weapon possession.
How was the study conducted?
The researchers relied on data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, which tracked more than 15,000 middle and high school students between 1994 and 2002. It examined six forms of punishment: adult arrest, adult conviction, juvenile arrest, juvenile conviction, expulsion from school, and being stopped by the police. Of the students surveyed, close to 1,500 identified themselves as lesbian, gay, or bisexual.
What explains the different treatment?
The study didn't examine reasons why gay teens might be treated more severely. Himmelstein says her theory is that there is bias on the part of school and court officials, but she says, "it may very well be not intentional," as "most people who work with youth want to do the best they can for young people and treat them fairly." Andrew Barnett, the executive director of the Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League in Washington, says school administrators, police, and other authorities just aren't equipped to "handle the challenges" faced by gay teens. "It's much easier to punish the youth," he says, "than to work with them and figure out why they may keep getting in fights and what is leading to this behavior."