The ACLU this week praised the introduction of the Student Non-Discrimination Act in Congress, legislation that is designed to make schools that receive federal funding a safer place to be for all students and particularly LGBTs.
The Student Non Discrimination Act is a federal anti-bullying bill that includes language specifically protecting students on the basis of their perceived or actual sexual orientation or gender identity/expression, adding to existing legislation that already protects students on the basis of disability or sex among other categories.
The bill is wider reaching than just focusing on LGBTs however, and is designed to to add to and make uniform the widely varying state anti-bullying laws that can leave certain children vulnerable. It will ensure that all forms of bullying are recorded and dealt with, with the threat of cuts to federal funds if schools refuse to act on bullying behavior.
The legislation was simultaneously introduced in the senate by Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) and in the House by Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO).
The American Civil Liberties Union strongly supports these bills and urges swift action by both chambers.
“The Student Non-Discrimination Act would have a profound impact in improving the lives of LGBT students in our schools,” said Ian Thompson, ACLU Legislative Representative. “As a country, we must do a better job of protecting LGBT students and ensuring their right to an education free of intolerance and harassment. So many LGBT students face daily discrimination and, too often, violence in our schools. It’s time to make a positive difference in their lives. The House and Senate should make passage of this bill a priority.”
The recent tragic deaths of young gay students from across the country underscore the fact that LGBT students are an especially vulnerable population in our nation’s schools. Discrimination and harassment, even physical abuse, are often a part of these students’ daily lives. Seth Walsh was one of those students. A 13-year-old middle school student, he was bullied and harassed at school for his sexual orientation. Seth’s mother and close friends report that teachers and school administrators were aware that Seth was being harassed and, in some instances, participated in the harassment. His mother’s pleas to the school for help were often brushed aside. In September 2010, Seth hanged himself from a tree in his backyard. A note Seth left upon his death expresses love for his family and close friends, and anger at the school for bringing them “this sorrow.”
“Seth was a wonderful, loving child, and I loved him for who he was. I can’t bring my son back. But schools can make a difference today by taking bullying seriously when students and parents tell them about it. It’s time for change. We have to create better schools for everyone,” said Wendy Walsh.
In December 2010, the ACLU wrote a letter to Seth’s school demanding that they take steps to remedy the hostile environment for students who are or are perceived to be LGBT. His mother, Wendy, attended the White House Conference on Bullying Prevention earlier today and spoke in support of the SNDA at its introduction.
While federal laws currently protect students on the basis of their race, color, sex, religion, disability or national origin, no federal statute explicitly protects students on the basis of actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. The SNDA, like Title IX, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the various disability civil rights statutes, is not simply legislation that would remedy discrimination after it occurs, but instead would also have the important impact of preventing discrimination from occurring.
While bullying is a wide reaching problem for all students, GLSEN highlights that LGBTs are especially vulnerable and in need of protecting due to ingrained prejudices and institutionalized homophobia in schools:
Nearly two-thirds of middle and high school students (65%) said they had been bullied in school in the past year, according to From Teasing to Torment: School Climate in America, a 2005 report from GLSEN and Harris Interactive that surveyed more than 3,000 students. Students at schools with a comprehensive anti-bullying policy similar to the one required by the Safe Schools Improvement Act were less likely than other students to report a serious harassment problem at their school (33% vs. 44%).
LGBT students experience bullying and harassment at an even more alarming rate. Nearly 9 out of 10 LGBT students (84.6%) said they’ve been harassed in the past year because of their sexual orientation and 63.7% because of their gender expression.
The introduction of the Student Non-Discrimination Act in Congress coincided with President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama’s opening up the White House for a conference on bullying and bullying prevention, a topic that they told invited students, teachers and parents they were passionate about.
This event also highlighted a new resource called stopbullying.gov.
The website provides information on how to deal with bullying for teens, young adults, parents, educators and also provides a page on community actions too. There are also dedicated pages dealing with cyberbullying and anti-LGBT bullying.
Read more about the White House anti-bullying conference here.