by Mike Andrew -
SGN Staff Writer
Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual teens in the U.S. are about 40% more likely than their straight peers to be punished by schools, police, and the courts, according to a Yale University study published in the journal Pediatrics on December 6.
Girls are especially at risk for unequal treatment, the study said.
The study documents substantial disparities between LGBT and straight teens in school expulsions, arrests, convictions, and police stops.
The differences in punishment are not explainable by differences in misconduct, the study says.
The most striking difference was for Lesbian and Bisexual girls, and they were two to three times as likely as girls with similar behavior to be punished, said Kathryn Himmelstein, lead author of the study.
The research is described as the first national look at sexual orientation and teen punishment.
The punishable behaviors included in the study range from lying to parents, drinking, shoplifting, and vandalism, to more serious offenses such as burglary, drug sales, and assault.
Himmelstein began the study after spending time working in the juvenile justice system during a leave of absence from college.
She noticed a disproportionate number of Gay and Lesbian teens in juvenile court but she found no studies in scientific literature indicating whether Gay teens were more likely to be involved in criminal activity.
As a result, she designed her own study for her senior thesis at Yale University.
Himmelstein used data from more than 15,000 middle school and high school students who were followed into early adulthood as part of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health.
The interviews used for the study started in 1994-95 and continued until 2001-02, but researchers said they expect the findings would be similar today because the institutions involved have not dramatically changed.
Of the 15,170 study participants, 13% of the boys and 17% of the girls said they were attracted to someone of the same sex, while 5% of boys and 6% of girls said they had a same-sex romantic relationship, the study found.
An additional 14% of girls and 6% of boys defined themselves as other than 100% heterosexual.
Regardless of their sexual orientation, 76% of the participants said they had committed minor offenses such as running away, shoplifting, or getting drunk.
Thirty percent reported moderate wrongdoing such as selling drugs and burglary, and 41% said they had engaged in violent behavior such as fighting, using a weapon, or threatening someone with one.
Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual teens were only slightly more likely to report minor and moderate non-violent misbehavior, like running away, lying to parents, or shoplifting, compared to their straight peers.
These teens were less likely to engage in serious crimes and violence than their straight peers.
The results showed that, for similar misconduct, Gay adolescents were roughly 1.25 to 3 times more likely to be sanctioned than straight teens.
In addition, teens who said they had experienced feelings of same-sex attraction were more likely to have been expelled from school than teens who had not.
The sexual-orientation disparity was greatest for girls.
Girls who identified themselves as Lesbian or Bisexual experienced 50% more police stops and reported more than twice as many juvenile arrests and convictions as other teen girls in similar trouble, the study said.
The punishments can be damaging, Himmelstein said. Teens expelled from school have higher dropout rates, and involvement in the criminal justice system can affect a range of opportunities, including housing eligibility and college financial aid.
Why the punishment gap exists is not clear, researchers said.
Himmelstein suggested that Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual teens who got in trouble didn't get the same breaks as other teens - lesser charges for self-defense, for example.
On the other hand, she said, it could be that girls in particular were punished more often because of discomfort with or bias against girls who did not conform to stereotypes of femininity.
It's definitely troubling to see such a disparity, Himmelstein said.
It may very well be not intentional, she said. I think most people who work with youth want to do the best they can for young people and treat them fairly, but our findings show that's not happening.
The study's data set was not large enough to allow for cross-tab analysis by race, but Himmelstein and other researchers said that was an important area for further study.
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