Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) has introduced the federal Student Non-Discrimination Act (H.R.4350) into the US House of Representatives. The bill aims to curb violence against students in public schools who identify as being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) and to establish a federal prohibition on discrimination in public schools based on a student’s perceived or actual sexual orientation or gender identity.
From Rep Jared Polis’ press release:
“Every day innocent students fall victim to relentless harassment and discrimination from teachers, staff, and fellow students based on their sexual orientation,” said Polis. “These actions not only hurt our students and our schools but, left unchecked, can also lead to life-threatening violence. Like Title VI for minorities in the 60s and Title IX for women in the 70s, 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.”
Current federal statutes already give protected status to students on the basis of their race, color, sex, religion, disability and national origin. Currently, no express federal protection exists for sexual orientation or gender identity. This means that school districts often have no comprehensive guide on how to tackle anti-gay prejudice and bullying, and that they are not always held accountable for taking steps to manage and prevent the bullying and mistreatment of LGBT students in their care.
The bill has 60 original co-sponsors including Rep. Tammy Baldwin and Rep. Barney Frank. The ACLU has released a statement calling the bill “well overdue,” and praising Rep Jared Polis’ advocacy and leadership on this issue. Christopher Anders, ACLU Senior Legislative Counsel, writes:
“This landmark bill is long overdue. Many LGBT students face harassment, discrimination and sometimes violence in our schools. Our public schools should not be places of exclusion, but places where students feel safe and free from discrimination. The Student Non-Discrimination Act will go a long way toward protecting LGBT students and will help promote a better learning environment. We urge the House to take swift action on this bill.”
Lambda Legal similarly praised the bill and also highlighted how they have presonally seen a very real need for such protection in US schools. From the Lambda Legal press release:
“At Lambda Legal, 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. The Student Non-Discrimination Act takes a big step toward a safer and healthier environment in every public school.
“Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students have long been at a significant disadvantage without specific protection under federal law. All students have a right to a safe learning environment, and this law will leave no doubt as to public schools’ responsibility to provide it.”
In a 2009 National School Climate Survey conducted by the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network (GLSEN), 91 percent of middle school students who identified as being LGBT reported that they had been verbally harassed because of their perceived or actual sexuality, while 59 percent reported that they had been physically harassed (pushed about or shoved), and 38 percent reported that they had been physically assaulted (punched, kicked or injured with a weapon). A similar trend was found for students facing hostility over their perceived or actual gender expression.
The study also noted the following:
Finding: Many LGBT students in middle school did not have access to important resources and interventions that can improve school climate.
Very few LGBT middle school students (4%) reported that their school had a Gay-Straight Alliance or similar student club, and they were much less likely to have a GSA than students in high school (43%).
64% of LGBT middle school students reported having at least one teacher or other school staff person in school who they felt was supportive of LGBT students, but they were less likely than high school students (86%) to report having supportive school staff.
When asked about the presence of school policies addressing harassment, 52% of LGBT middle school students reported that their school had some type of anti-harassment policy. However, only 17% of middle school students reported that the policy explicitly mentioned protections from harassment based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity/expression.
If there’s any doubt in your mind as to the need for the Student Non-Discrimination Act, Sirdeaner Walker’s story may speak to you. In 2009 her son, Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, committed suicide by hanging himself. Why? Mrs. Walker puts it down to the near constant bullying he had endured at school over his perceived sexuality. Carl was just eleven-years-old. When, prior to Carl’s suicide, Mrs. Walker had raised concerns with the school, they dismissed the name calling and physical harassment her son had received as being “normal.” On the school’s failure to help her son, she later said:
“I desperately wish they had been right. But like the vast majority of schools… they just didn’t know how to deal with bullying. They simply didn’t have the policies or the training to make it better. And the problem just got worse.”
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