As the Senate education committee continued to haggle over how to redraft the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) last month, Democratic Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota spoke up passionately for a new law to incorporate language which would specifically protect LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) students. Rather than leaving such policies to individual states and school districts, he and other lawmakers are pushing to adopt legislation to protect students from harassment and bullying which would apply to all schools nationwide.
In Sen. Franken’s plea, he reminded the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee of several high-profile cases which have occurred in recent years, in which individuals committed suicide after being bullied due to their perceived or actual sexual orientation.
“Nine out of 10 LGBT kids are harassed or bullied in school. One-third report having skipped school in the last month because they felt unsafe, and study after study has shown that LGBT youth are more likely to commit suicide. But the sad fact is that our federal laws are failing” those students, Franken said.
And comparing his proposed addition to civil rights protections to federal anti-discrimination laws that protect students on the basis of race and sex, he said, “Well, yet again, we are facing a group of students that is facing pervasive systemic discrimination. There is no law that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation at school.”
Recently, the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights has begun investigating schools where students have committed suicide in order to determine how they handled the bullying of these students based on their sexual orientation. Tehachapi Unified school district in California was actually faulted by this office for failing to stop schoolmates from constantly harassing openly-gay Seth Walsh, who was 13 years old when he committed suicide.
In spite of Sen. Franken’s strong feeling that such legislation needed to be added to the rewriting of ESEA, he withdrew his proposal which would make LGBT students a protected class and grant them the power to sue their tormentors, deciding instead to wait until the bill’s rewrite hits the Senate floor to reoffer this proposal.
Sen. Franken said that he would work to rewrite his proposal in the meantime, in the hopes of getting Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill, to endorse it as well. Sen. Kirk and Sen. Robert Casey, D-Pa, have proposed the Safe Schools Improvement Act, which would call for all schools and districts that accept federal funds to create codes of conduct to prohibit bullying and harassment for any reason, which would include gender identity and sexual orientation. Additionally, it would require states to track bullying cases, reporting such statistics to the Education Department, which would then report the state to Congress.
In response to Sen. Franken’s remarks, Sen. Kirk said, “If we can more clearly define rights and focus on education so the maximum number of students survive and have healthy self-esteem, and … kids learn a fundamental American value of tolerance, I think this is something we should explore on the floor.”
It remains uncertain, however, whether a proposal calling for anti-bullying language and explicit protection for students based on gender identity or sexual orientation would even pass in both chambers.
Some, like Sasha Pudelski, who is a legislative specialist for the American Association of School Administrators, which represents superintendents and district-level officials, said that her organization can’t support federal anti-bullying legislation.
“We believe decisions as to how a school defines, prevents, addresses, and reports bullying should be a decision made by the superintendent, school administrators, school board, parents, teachers, and other engaged community members in the context of state law and existing civil rights protections in federal law and case law,” she said.
She recommended instead that Congress provide money for districts to create school-wide, evidence-based bullying-prevention programs.
The director of federal affairs for the National School Boards Association, Roberta Stanley, reported that her group would also prefer to allow states and districts to adopt bullying policies that were appropriate to the needs of their communities.
Stanley said, “Depending on where you sit and where you live, it may have never been a problem.”
Eliza Byard, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, GLSEN, disagreed, stating that specific laws and policies which make clear who they protect are more effective than more general bullying prevention measures. She is in support of Sen. Franken’s proposal as well as Sen. Kirk and Sen. Casey’s proposal due to their unique goals.
Of bullying policies that don’t name LGBT students specifically, Byard says, “When unpopular, potentially difficult, maybe complicated issues come up, teachers may be afraid to act. If you don’t name it, they don’t act.”
If neither measure wins the support of the full Senate, Education Week points out that within the body of the Senate reauthorization bill, bullying is addressed, although the language does not specifically refer to LGBT students.
The bill reads that any state which receives a grant under the Successful, Safe, and Healthy Students program must establish policies “that prevent and prohibit conduct that is sufficiently severe, persistent, or pervasive to limit a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from a program or activity of a public school or educational agency, or to create a hostile or abusive educational environment at a program or activity of a public school or educational agency, including acts of verbal, nonverbal, or physical aggression, intimidation, or hostility.”
We will have to wait to see if Congress agrees to more specific LGBT language in their anti-bullying legislation. If they do, it will be interesting to see if naming it really stops the bullying.