The widely reported suicides of four gay male teenagers in September that have been linked to school bullying or harassment has heightened interest in two separate bills in Congress aimed at curtailing anti-LGBT bullying and discrimination in the nation’s public schools.
A third bill expected to be introduced next month by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) would require colleges and universities to develop campus anti-bullying and anti-harassment policies that cover LGBT students.
“For those of us who work in education policy our focus is making the education case for these bills,” said Eliza Byard, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, known as GLSEN.
“And unfortunately we’re doing that now in a context where recent tragedies have made the cost of not acting absolutely clear to everyone,” Byard said.
She was referring to the September suicides of four gay youths ranging in age from 11 to 18 that authorities and family members said followed unrelenting bullying and harassment of three of the teens by their middle school or high school classmates.
The fourth youth, 18-year-old Tyler Clementi of New Jersey, jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge.
Clementi, a freshman at Rutgers University, apparently became distraught when his roommate planted a video camera in his dorm room without his knowledge that captured him in a sexual encounter with another male. The roommate broadcast the encounter live over the Internet.
The Safe Schools Improvement Act, which was introduced in the House in May 2009 and in the Senate in August of this year, would require school districts receiving federal funds to adopt policies prohibiting bullying and harassment. The policies must apply to bullying and harassment targeting people on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity as well as other categories such as race, religion, gender and ethnicity.
Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.) introduced the bill in the House, where 125 members signed on as co-sponsors. Six of the 125 are Republicans. Sen. Robert Casey (D-Pa.) introduced the bill in the Senate, where 12 senators — 11 Democrats and one independent — signed on as co-sponsors.
In January of this year, Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), who is gay, introduced into the House the Student Non-Discrimination Act. The bill would prohibit sexual orientation or gender identity related discrimination against students in public schools that receive federal funding.
“For the purpose of this act, discrimination includes, but is not limited to, harassment of a student on the basis of actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity of such student or of a person with whom the student associates or has associated,” the bill states.
The bill also allows an “aggrieved individual” to take legal action in a judicial proceeding to seek enforcement of the bill’s provisions barring sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination. It says the party taking legal action could be awarded compensatory damages and reimbursement of court costs for filing such an action.
In May, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) introduced an identical version of the bill in the Senate. Twenty-five senators, 24 Democrats and one independent, signed on as co-sponsors. The House version of the bill pulled in 125 co-sponsors, 123 Democrats and two Republicans.
Both the Safe Schools Improvement Act and the Student Non-Discrimination Act have been referred to the House and Senate education committees.
Lara Cottingham, a spokesperson for Polis, said the congressman was hopeful that a legislative hearing on the Student Non-Discrimination Act would be held next year. She said no date has been set.
“Every day, students who are, or are perceived to be, lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) are subjected to pervasive discrimination, including harassment, bullying, intimidation and violence, which is harmful to both students and our education system,” Polis said in a statement at the time he introduced the bill.
“While civil rights protections expressly address discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, disability or national origin, they do not explicitly include sexual orientation or gender identity and, as a result, LGBT students and parents have often had limited legal recourse for this kind of discrimination,” he said.
“The Student Non-Discrimination Act establishes a comprehensive federal prohibition of discrimination in public schools based on actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity and provides victims with meaningful and effective remedies, modeled after Title IX,” he said.
Lautenberg announced last week that he plans to introduce an anti-bullying bill covering colleges and universities when Congress returns from its recess in November. He made the announcement on the Rutgers University campus in New Brunswick, N.J., during a forum called to discuss issues surrounding the suicide of Clementi.
He said his bill would require colleges and universities receiving federal funds to adopt a code of conduct that prohibits harassment and bullying. He said the bill would also call on colleges and universities to put in place procedures for addressing complaints about harassment and bullying and would provide federal grants to fund college programs aimed at preventing harassment and bullying.
Byard of GLSEN said studies show that LGBT students enrolled in schools that have adopted anti-bully and harassment policies are less likely to encounter bullying.
“LGBT students in a school with such a policy in place are less likely to be victimized themselves, are more likely to report that faculty actually intervened when things happen, and are themselves more likely to be in a better place in terms of their own well being and their future educational aspirations,” she said.
Most, but not all, D.C. area senators and House members have signed on as co-sponsors for the Student Non-Discrimination Act. Co-sponsors include Congressional Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), Reps. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Jim Moran (D-Va.), Sens. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), and Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.).
Reps. Donna Edwards (D-Md.) and Frank Wolf (D-Va.), and Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Jim Webb (D-Va.) have not signed on as co-sponsors of the bill.
Cardin, Moran and Norton are the only D.C. area members of Congress that became co-sponsors of the Safe Schools Improvement Act.
Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the House Majority Leader, doesn’t co-sponsor bills according to a longstanding practice of House members who hold the posts of Majority Leader and Speaker of the House.
Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade. He has chronicled LGBT-related developments as they have touched on a wide range of social, religious, and governmental institutions, including the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the military, local and national law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church. Chibbaro has reported on LGBT issues and LGBT participation in local and national elections since 1976. He has covered the AIDS epidemic since it first surfaced in the early 1980s. Follow Lou
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