Investing in Justice: Achieving Education Equity by Divesting from Harm and Investing in Support

By Kate McDonough, Director of Organizing, Girls for Gender Equity, NLC New York City

The time has come to own that we have not done right by our young people when it comes to education policy, especially young people of color including Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer (LGBTQ) young people of color. Education inequity is in fact an old problem where today’s current educational practices are rooted in policies designed to marginalize young people of color.

However, with the passing of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which allows for school climate and safety to be a measurement of successes[i] and requires states to have a plan to address bullying and harassment, the overuse of discipline practices that remove students from the classroom and the use of aversive behavior interventions that compromise student health and safety[ii], states now have the opportunity to divest from harmful practices and invest in school climates that produce positive outcomes for traditionally marginalized youth.

Racist Discipline Practices

Throughout the country, young people of color, including young people of color who are LGBTQ, are being pushed out of school or are forced to endure a toxic school climate. Studies show that young people of color, especially Black students, are suspended at higher rates than their White peers. For example, when compared to their White counter parts, Black girls are six times more likely to be suspended and Black boys are three times more likely to be suspended.[iii]

This disproportionate level of suspension can be attributed to racist and sexist perceptions of behavior. While Black students do not engage in more problematic behavior than their White peers, implicit bias drives teachers to suspend them at higher rates and discipline them for subjective behaviors.[iv] In addition, prevailing anti-Black racism leads to disproportionate and harsh discipline for student behavior such as chewing gum, getting up to throw away trash or for talking back.[v] Lastly, racist and sexist perceptions of Black girls have lead teachers to discipline Black young women for not being ladylike or conforming to a White middle class idea of femininity.[vi]

Furthermore, a combination of institutionalized racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia creates a school environment where LGBTQ youth of color face high levels of biased-based bullying and harassment from peers and school staff as well as high levels of punitive discipline where young people are pushed for expressing their gender and sexuality in a way that is perceived as inconsistent with current gender norms.[vii]

Criminalization Instead of Support

Youth of color and LGBTQ youth face high amounts of policing through the use of arrests and discriminatory practices. According to the New York Civil Liberties Union, during New York City’s 2014–2015 academic school year, a total of 775 arrests were made in city public schools, an average of four a day. Of these arrests, 33.6% were of young women and 94.3% were Black and Latina/o students[viii]. In addition, a 2008 report by The New York Civil Liberties Union found that young women of color and LGBTQ youth have reported discriminatory treatment at the hands of police and school safety agents, particularly during searches and in connection with the use of metal detectors in schools.[ix]

In addition many schools districts encourage the criminalization of students by investing more funds in policing than they do in support staff such as guidance councilors and social workers. For example, a 2016 study found that three of the five biggest school districts in the country: New York City, Chicago and Miami-Dade County, employ more security staff, which includes uniform police offers and school safety officers, than they do social workers and guidance councilors[x]. In fact in New York City school safety officers are employed by the New York City Police Department as opposed to the Department of Education, thus furthering blurring the lines between school discipline and law enforcement.

Although proponents of increased school safety officers and other policing measures such as metal detectors cite safety as the rational for such policies, research demonstrates that policing students furthers the criminalization of normal adolescent behavior as opposed to reducing bullying and harassment.[xi]

Eurocentric Curriculum

In addition to experiencing violence through criminalization and racist discipline practices, young people of color, including LGBTQ youth of color, experience Eurocentric curriculums where their identities and histories are either portrayed negatively or are not reflected at all. At Girls for Gender Equity, we conducted a participatory action research project where over 100 New York City young women of color including transgender and queer young women, as well as gender nonconforming youth of color, identified what gets in the way of their education and then imagined the school that they deserve. One-third of the young people who participated in the study stated that they did not feel connected to the curriculum and 83% of those who felt disconnected said that it was because they the did not see themselves reflected in the curriculum.

Systematically Underfunded

School districts where there are a majority of students of color are significantly underfunded. A 2015 study of over 500 Pennsylvania school districts revealed that regardless of poverty level, school districts that are either majority White students or 100% White students receive more funding then schools where there are no or few White students.[xii] In New York State, the funding of school districts is so inequitable that the state was sued and ordered to disperse a total of 5.5 billion dollars to underfunded public schools throughout the state. To date, New York has yet to fulfill the terms of the lawsuit.

Historical Roots

The criminalization, over discipline, erasure of history through a Eurocentric curriculum and lack of financial investment in students of color, including LGBTQ young people of color, is not new. This is a practice that has been in existence within our education system for a long time.

Deeply held racist attitudes and structures have informed America’s education system since our beginning. It’s demonstrated through various state laws that prevented slaves from learning to read or write[xiii] and how discipline of Black girls today is linked to stereotypes that date back to slavery where Black girls and women are often perceived as angry, promiscuous or hypersexualized.[xiv]

Historically these views have also influenced our country’s curriculum. In the 1933 book, The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter G. Woodson, Woodson explored the ways in which the curriculum in U.S schools encourages an internalized inferiority among Black students by teaching them to “admire the Hebrew, the Greek the Latin and the Teuton and despise the African.” In addition, Woodson also noted that when the United States Bureau of Education examined the curriculum of schools that only Black children attended, only 18 offered a course on Black history.[xv]

The erasing of the histories of Black children through a Eurocentric curriculum continued into the 1960s and 1970s as demonstrated by both the October 1966 Black Panther Party Platform and the March 1972 Black Panther Party Platform which demanded an education system for Black people “that exposes the true nature of this decadent American society. We want education that teaches us our true history and our role in the present-day society.”[xvi]

When exploring the historical roots of punishing LGBTQ young people of color, one need only to look at the very beginnings of our country where early colonizers engaged in the violent suppression of gender fluidity amongst Indigenous people. As noted by Native American Studies Scholar, Andrea Smith, the enforcement of the gender binary facilitated the formation of the United States on Indigenous land. As Smith notes “In order to colonize a people whose society was not hierarchical, colonizers must first naturalize hierarchy through instituting patriarchy”[xvii] Therefore, the practice of punishing LGBTQ youth of color for not dressing or behaving masculine or feminine enough is rooted in the violent colonization of our country.

Thus, while working to address the injustices of America’s educational system, policy makers must work from the understanding that the issues we face today have grown out of a historical cycle of violence that our country has yet to break.

Creating New Realties Through Focusing on School Climate

Breaking our educational system’s cycle of violence requires an intersectional and holistic approach which can be accomplished by focusing on school climate and safety because it enables local education agencies (LEAs) to assess the overall health of their school community and invest in needed practices that can positively shift the school’s culture. In addition, creating positive school climates also produce increases in attendance, academic performance and graduation rates;[xviii] demonstrating that a focus on school climate does not take away from improving academics but supports it.

Furthermore the passage and implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) creates a unique opportunity for states to focus on school climate as they draft their education plans: Sec. 1111 (p. 42–43) of ESSA requires that each state plan should detail how the state will assist LEAs with improving the conditions of learning through reductions in bullying, harassment, the overuse of discipline practices that remove students from the classroom and the use of aversive behavioral interventions that compromise student health and safety. Sec. 1111 (p. 34–35) of ESSA allows states to pick school climate and safety as an optional indicator for school success.

Thus, significant financial commitment and effort should be made on the state and federal level to enable local education agencies (LEAs) to invest in polices and practices that create a positive school climate and divest from practices that push young people of color including LGBTQ youth of color out of school or lead them to disengage from education.

Creating Positive School Climates by Divesting from Criminalization and Investing in Support

In order to end the criminalization of young people of color including LGBTQ students of color, LEAs should stop investing in positions that facilitate criminalization. Thus, LEAs should create a phase out plan that ends the regular presence of law enforcement, which includes sworn officers and School Resource Officers or School Safety Officers. These positions should be replaced with support staff, such as councilors, social workers, peacekeepers and restorative justice coordinators, who can get at the root cause of the problem and mange conflict without resulting to suspension or arrest.[xix] In addition, LEAs should create polices for removing metal detectors.[xx]

In order to create a climate that would enable LEAs to phase out the presence of law enforcement and the use of metal detectors, there must be investment in developing practices that create a positive school climate and enable schools to decrease the use of punitive discipline practices. One proven approach to handling conflict and creating positive school climates is Restorative Justice (RJ), an initiative that can look different in each school but overall “involves processes and structures for building community, repairing relationships when conflict happens, and supporting everyone to be accountable to one another.”[xxi] Case studies demonstrate that restorative justice is most successful when approached through a racial justice lens and implemented with a multilevel and multiyear commitment on both the district and school level. A case study of the implementation of restorative justice within Denver Public Schools discovered that over the course of six years suspensions of Black students decreased by approximately 7 percentage points and that suspensions of Latinx students decreased approximately 6 percentage points. One school in the case studied that was stereotyped as a “gang factory” found that after one year of implementing Restorative Justice that 11 of the 14 cases of fighting that were referred to the process were resolved, suspensions dropped by over 40% and police citations dropped by 86%.[xxii]

In addition to creating better school climates, investment in RJ is cost effective. For example New York City’s school safety budget, which covers the regular presence of police in school is $357 million while the implementation of RJ in schools with the highest suspension rates is projected to cost $66 million, a mere 18% of the school safety budget.[xxiii] Thus, for both moral and economic reasons, states should work with LEAs to reduce the funding of punitive punishment and policing and redirect those funds to practices and personal that will support our young people.

Creating Positive School Climates by Addressing Implicit Bias

It’s not enough to change practices, work has to be done to change hearts and minds of school administrators and teachers. Studies have confirmed that implicit bias is a root of disproportionate discipline. Therefore, states should provide funding for LEAs to engage in implicit bias trainings. However, a one off training is not enough to change behavior that is rooted in institutionalized racism, sexism, transphobia and homophobia that has existed in this country for centuries. Thus, LEAs must commit to working with schools on addressing bias regularly, which can be accomplished through restorative justice. For example, as teachers at Edward A. Reynolds West Side High School, a transfer school in New York City, worked to implement restorative justice, they found a need to contextualize their efforts within the broader struggle for racial justice. One teacher noted the practice is needed “because many teachers are unconsciously unaware of their own white privilege and embedded racism. We need to recognize the vast and varied forms of racism that our students face in our society.”[xxiv] Upon this recognition, teachers at Edward A. Reynolds West Side High School began have restorative justice circles where they engaged in facilitated conversations about race and racism. LEAs should support schools in holding similar conversations. In addition, these conversations need to have an intersectional frame which includes race, sexism, homophobia and transphoabia to ensure that young women of color and queer and transgender students of color are not left out when addressing implicit bias.

Breaking Cycles of Violence by breaking away form Eurocentric Curriculum

As we work to keep students in school, efforts should also be made to ensure that school is an enjoyable experience where students can see themselves reflected in the curriculum. One major finding of our participatory action research study at Girls for Gender equity was that when the young women who participated in the study were asked to create the school of their dreams, many cited a curriculum that reflected their identities, which included queer and transgender identities, and allowed them to learn about their culture. In order actualize this vision states should create curriculum requirements that enable there to be content grounded in an intersectional feminist lens, which allows students to not just seem themselves reflected in the curriculum, but also enabled them deconstruct oppressive structures.[xxv]

Equity through Equitable Funding

In addition to divesting from harmful practices, states need to invest in traditionally marginalized youth by providing schools with equitable funding. This can be accomplished by adopting a progressive funding model where states provide more funds to high poverty and low wealth schools who are limited in their ability to acquire funds through local property taxes. A 2014 study that compared New York, which has a regressive funding model where fewer funds are allocated to low wealth districts, to New Jersey, which has a progressive funding model, found that New Jersey out performed New York in both graduation rates and test scores.[xxvi]


By owning that the United States education system is rooted in institutionalized racism and sexism, we can approach public policy through a lens of accountability as opposed to something that is meant to fix a current issue. Now is the time to stop divest from practices that perpetuate violence and to invest in the love and support that young people need. Moving forward this will require us to create new systems that students and the wider school community can finally have the schools that they deserve.

[i] ESSA Sec. 1111 (p. 34–35)

[ii] ESSA Sec. 1111 (p. 42–43)

[iii] Crenshaw, Kimberlé. Black Girls Matter: Pushedout, Over Policed and Under Protected. African American Policy Forum, (2014).

[iv] Girvan, Erik. On Using the Psychological Science of Implicit Bias to Advance Anti-Discrimination Law. 26 Geo. Mason U. C.R. L.J. 1 (2015).

[v] Wun, Connie. Unaccounted Foundations: Black Girls, Anti-Black Racism, and Punishment in Schools. University of Illinois at Chicago (2014).

[vi] Morris, Edward. “Ladies” or “Loudies”? Perceptions and Experiences of Black Girls in Classrooms. Youth & Society (2007).

[vii] Burdge, H., Licona, A. C., Hyemingway, Z. T. LGBTQ Youth of Color: Discipline Disparities, School Push-Out, and the School-to-Prison Pipeline. San Francisco, CA: Gay-Straight Alliance Network and Tucson, AZ: Crossroads Collaborative at the University of Arizona, (2014).

[viii] Student Safety Act Reporting on Arrests and Summonses: July 1, 2014 — June 30, 2015 (New York Civil Liberties Union) (2015).

[ix] NYPD School Safety Data Pursuant to the Student Safety Act (quarterly reporting by school and precinct beginning 2016).

[x]Barnum, Matt. “Exclusive — Data Shows 3 of the 5 Biggest School Districts Hire More Security Officers Than Counselors,” The 74th, March 27th, 2016.

[xi] Urban Youth Collaborative. The $746 Million a Year School-to-Prison Pipeline: The Ineffective, Discriminatory, and Costly Process of Criminalizing New York City Students (2017).

[xii] White, Gillian. “The Data Are Damning: How Race Influences School Funding,”

The Atlantic, September 30th, 2015.

[xiii] “Acts against the education of slaves South Carolina, 1740 and Virginia, 1819”.

[xiv] The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. & The National Women’s Law Center.

Unlocking Opportunity for African American Girls (2014).

[xv] Woodson, Carter. The Mis-Education of the Negro, 1933.

[xvi]Stanford University. “History of the Black Panther Party”.

[xvii] Andrea Ritchie, Joey L. Mogul and Kay Whitlock. Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States. (Boston: Beacon Press, 2011), 3.

[xviii] Emily Morgan, et al. The School Discipline Consensus Report: Strategies from the Field to Keep Students Engaged in School and Out of the Juvenile Justice System. Council of State Governments Justice Center (2014)

[xix] Dignity in Schools Campaign. Counselors Not Cops: Ending the Regular Presence of Law Enforcement in Schools (2016).

[xx] Safety With Dignity: Phase One Recommendations, The NYC Mayor’s Leadership Team on School Climate and Discipline (July 2015).

[xxi] Teachers Unite. Building Safe, Supportive and Restorative School Communities in New York City (2015).

[xxii] González, Thalia. Socializing Schools: Addressing Racial Disparities in Discipline Through Restorative Justice. Occidental College (2014).

[xxiii] Urban Youth Collaborative. The $746 Million a Year School-to-Prison Pipeline: The Ineffective, Discriminatory, and Costly Process of Criminalizing New York City Students (2017).

[xxiv] Teachers Unite. Building Safe, Supportive and Restorative School Communities in New York City (2015).

[xxv] New York City Council. Young Women’s Initiative Report Recommendations (2016).

[xxvi] Education Law Center, Alliance for Quality Education and Public Policy & Education Fund. A Tale of Two States: Equity Outperforms Inequity (2014).

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