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Student Non-Discrimination Act introduced in U.S. House

A bill to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in public schools is again before Congress, introduced on April 18 by openly gay U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, a Democrat from Colorado, and U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican from Florida.

The legislation is the Student Non-Discrimination Act. It would prohibit discrimination against any public school student on the basis of actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. In addition, the bill would prevent discrimination against students because of the actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity of a person with whom that student associates or has associated.

Polis said, “Throughout this country, far too many students fall victim to relentless harassment and discrimination from teachers, staff, and their peers based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.

“Bullying is a leading cause of poor attendance and dropping out because kids don’t feel safe enough to go to school. Like Title VI for racial and ethnic minorities in the 1960s and Title IX for women in the 1970s, my legislation puts LGBT students on an equal footing with their peers, so they can attend school and get a quality education, free from fear. This bill will ensure that every student has the right to an education free from harassment and violence.”

Ros-Lehtinen said in a news release, “As a member of the Congressional Anti-bullying Caucus and the Equality LGBT Caucus, I am proud to join Jared in the re-introduction of this important legislation that seeks to protect LGBT students against harassment and discrimination.

“No one has the right to victimize others on the basis of their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. Our schools should be learning environments in which students yearn to attend rather than dread. As a former Florida certified teacher, I understand how children can carry the scars of bullying well into adulthood. LGBT students should enjoy safety as all children do. This pro-equality legislation will do just that and I’m proud to reintroduce it.”

The measure has support among civil rights groups and teachers organizations.

Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said, “School is where young people learn, grow, and develop mentally and emotionally.  It’s a space that must be free of discrimination and intimidation. Unfortunately too many are harassed, bullied, and discriminated against causing many to under-perform or drop out.”

HRC, in a survey of LGBT youth, found that: 

• Among youth who are not out at school, the most frequent obstacle they describe is that teachers or classmates will treat them differently or judge them.

• Sixty-four percent of LGBT teens report that they never participate in after-school or other recreational activities out of fear of discrimination.

• Youth who are out to their immediate family or at school report higher levels of happiness, optimism, acceptance and support.

• LGBT youth experience bullying at school more frequently than their non-LGBT peers. In fact, LGBT youth are twice as likely to experience verbal harassment, exclusion and physical attack at school as their non-LGBT peers. 

Federal statutory and constitutional protections expressly address discrimination in schools on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex and disability, but do not expressly address sexual orientation or gender identity.

As a result, Griffin said, students and parents have limited legal recourse to redress discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

SNDA is modeled after Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex and provides legal recourse to redress such discrimination.

Other reaction:

• Openly gay U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan of Wisconsin:Every day, LGBT students across the country are subjected to widespread discrimination, bullying and harassmen. Bullying harms LGBT students and the communities they belong to. It poisons our school culture, deprives our students of their sense of safety, and—all too frequently—has tragic and devastating consequences.

“We must take meaningful, immediate action to end discrimination against LGBT youth in schools. I stand strongly behind the Student Non-Discrimination Act, and the millions of LGBT students it would help. I urge my colleagues to support this important legislation.”

• Hayley Gorenberg, deputy legal director of Lambda Legal: “Ahead of GLSEN’s National Day of Silence, when thousands of students across the country take a stand against bullying in support of LGBT students, we are reminded of the many LGBT youth who feel like they do not have a voice because of the bullying and discrimination they experience in school. At Lambda Legal, we’ve encountered horrendous cases of violence and discrimination against LGBT young people in schools – and sometimes against the allies who try to support them. The Student Non-Discrimination Act takes a big step toward a safer and healthier environment in every public school.”

• Ian Thompson, ACLU legislative representative: “Passing the Student Non-Discrimination Act is the single most important step that Congress could take to improve the lives of LGBT students in our nation’s public schools. Though the pace of positive progress on LGBT rights over the past several years has been dizzying, there is shockingly no federal law that explicitly protects LGBT students from discrimination and harassment in our nation’s public schools. We urge Congress to pass this bipartisan legislation and in doing so affirm that every student deserves the opportunity to attend school and learn without fear.”

• Education Secretary Arne Duncan: “I commend Congressman Polis, Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen, and Senator Franken for their efforts to curb discrimination and bullying in our nation’s schools especially against LGBT students. We must continue to work together to make our schools safer and more productive places for students to learn.”

• Openly gay U.S. Rep. David Cicilline of Rhode Island: No young person should ever feel unsafe or unwelcome at their school, but this is the case for many LGBT students in cities and towns across our country. The Student Non-Discrimination Act is a pragmatic proposal that would create stronger protections for LGBT youth and prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in our public schools. I am proud to co-sponsor this legislation that will help ensure that every child in America can learn in a safe environment.”

Openly gay U.S. Rep. Mark Takano of California: “I’m proud to support the Student Non-Discrimination Act as far too many students are being harassed, bullied, intimidated or subjected to violence because of their actual or perceived sexual orientation. By establishing a comprehensive Federal prohibition of discrimination in public schools, SNDA will help create a safe learning environment for all students, regardless of their sexual orientation.”

Sen. Franken makes video for non-discrimination act

U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., released a 3-minute video encouraging people to make life better now for LGBT youth by supporting the proposed Student Non-Discrimination Act.

The legislation would ban discrimination and harassment of students on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in public elementary and secondary schools.

Franken’s video is a spin on the popular It Gets Better Project, and the senator describes SNDA as a step to make life better for young people now.

LGBT students shouldn’t have to wait until after they graduate from high school to be able to go about their daily lives free from discrimination and harassment, Franken said.

A 2009 study of U.S. high school and middle school students found that nine out of 10 reported experiencing harassment at their school within the past year based on their sexual orientation or gender identity, and two-thirds said they felt unsafe at school because of who they are.

Nearly one-third of the students skipped at least one day of school within the previous month because of concerns for their safety.

Federal action urged after suicides

Federal action is being advocated as activists campaign for new and improved tools to counter bullying in schools.

The push comes in the wake of at least six gay-related suicides since the start of the 2010-11 school year, including a Wisconsin teen who advocated for a gay-straight alliance, a Rutgers University student outed in an Internet video, an Indiana teen who hung himself in his family’s barn, a California boy who hung himself in his back yard, a Texas kid who shot himself and a Rhode Island University student who hung himself in his dorm room.

On Oct. 12, more than 70 organizations urged Congress to pass the pending Safe Schools Improvement Act and the Student Non-Discrimination Act.

The Safe Schools Improvement Act would require schools that receive Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act funding to implement comprehensive anti-bullying policies.

The Student Non-Discrimination Act, modeled after Title IX, would provide nationwide comprehensive prohibition of discrimination in public schools based on actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.

The organizations also endorsed the Make It Better Project, a video-focused effort intended to inspire LGBT youth on their darker days and to educate youth and adults on how to counter school-based harassment.

“Our community has suffered a terrible loss in the past month,” Carolyn Laub of the Gay-Straight Alliance Network, which launched the Make It Better Project, said Oct. 12. “We can’t afford to wait another day and lose another life to the epidemic of anti-LGBT bullying in our schools. This is the moment for all of us … to do everything in our power to make schools safer.”

Several days earlier, at the Human Rights Campaign’s annual gala in Washington, D.C., senior presidential advisor Valerie Jarrett said in an address that the White House is advocating federal action.

“On behalf of President Obama, I want to make clear that this administration is firmly committed to working with you and other advocates,” Jarrett said. “For we all have to ensure that we are creating an environment in our schools, our communities, and our country, that is safe for every person, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.”

She cited work in the U.S. Department of Education, which created a federal task force on bullying and, in August, held the first National Bullying Summit.

The Education Department also has “reinvigorated the office for civil rights to help stop harassment in our schools based on race, disability, sex – and bullying of LGBT young people who may not conform to gender norms,” Jarrett said.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Health and Human Services Department has announced a National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention that brings together public and private partners.

“And it’s going to make sure people have access to help, and to resources when they are in crisis,” said Jarrett. “One of its specific goals is preventing suicide in at-risk groups, including LGBT youth.”

Tammy Aaberg of Anoka, Minn., was in the audience at the HRC dinner. Her son Justin killed himself in July.

Aaberg said she was aware of one incident of bullying against her son, but she “had no idea how horrible it was and I’m learning that this harassment happened in the company of teachers.”

The mother said she had wanted “Justin’s legacy to be that he’s the last gay child to take his life because of bullying.” He wasn’t.

Inside the Beltway

President Barack Obama confirmed his support for legislation to extend the federal benefits of marriage to same-sex couples. Such benefits, including Social Security survivor benefits, are denied to gays and lesbians under the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act.

 

Responding to a question about pending legislation to repeal elements of DOMA, Obama said, “My hope is we can get it done.”

In other news from the U.S. capital:

  • 26 U.S. representatives signed a letter calling on the Boy Scouts of America to end its discrimination against gay scouts and gay and lesbian scout leaders. U.S. Reps. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., and Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y., initiated the effort.

    Activists have for years challenged the policy, which the BSA most recently cited in its decision to reject an offer to volunteer from lesbian moms Cate and Elizabeth Wirth, whose 10-year-old son had joined a Cub Scout pack in Vermont.

    “As you celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Boy Scouts of America, it is long past time that the Boy Scouts finally provide the opportunity for all scouts, leaders, and volunteers, to share in the joys of scouting, regardless of sexual orientation,” the congressional letter stated.

  • Openly gay U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., introduced the Student Non-Discrimination Act, which would offer remedies for discrimination “based on actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity” in public elementary and secondary schools.

    “We’ve encountered extraordinary cases of violence and discrimination against LGBT young people in schools – and sometimes against the allies who try to support them,” said Lambda Legal deputy director Hayley Gorenberg. “The Student Non-Discrimination Act takes a big step toward a safer and healthier environment in every public school.”

    Polis secured 60 co-sponsors, including Baldwin and openly gay U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass.