March 8, 2011 | by Chris Johnson
Casey introduces anti-bullying legislation

Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) (Blade photo by Michael Key)

A U.S. senator from Pennsylvania on Tuesday reintroduced legislation aimed at thwarting the bullying of LGBT students with a new provision geared toward protecting against harassment via the Internet.

Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) introduced the bill, which is dubbed the Safe Schools Improvement Act. Joining him as an original co-sponsor is Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) as well as 18 other members of the Senate Democratic caucus.

In a conference call on Tuesday, Casey said the measure was introduced to help ensure that students feel safe as they complete their studies.

“This is in my judgment the ultimate betrayal of a child,” Casey said. “They should go to school with a reasonable expectation that they’re going to be safe, and when they’re not safe, it’s our fault across the country — those of us who are elected officials and those who have anything to do with this challenge of making sure that our children can be educated.”

If the legislation were to pass, schools that receive federal funding would have to establish codes of conduct explicitly prohibiting bullying and harassment. Additionally, the bill would require states to collect data on incidents of bullying and report the information to the Department of Education, which will make the data available to parents and local communities.

Further, the Department of Education would have to provide Congress with a report every two years on the state-reported data, along with other specified data.

Kirk, who was also on the conference call, said his priority in the bill was a provision that wasn’t in the legislation during the previous Congress — language explicitly protecting students against bullying that they could encounter online, such as threats on their Facebook pages.

The new bill clarifies that “electronic communications” are a context in which students could experience harassment.

“It’s incumbent on the national legislature to keep up to speed with what’s happening in the country, and cyber-bullying is now very much a part of 21st century American life,” Kirk said.

Stacy Skalsi, director of public policy for the National Association of School Psychologists, said her organization supports the Safe Schools Improvement Act out of concern for bullied students as well as those engaging in bullying to help guide them to make better decisions.

“We’re really concerned that schools really need to some guidance to move forward,” she said. “There’s still a lot of confusion and ambiguity about how to respond to the problem.”

Casey said bullying that LGBT students and students with disabilities face in school was in particular a motivation for introducing the measure. The senator cited a 2009 study from the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network finding that eight in 10 LGBT students say they’ve faced bullying in the last year.

“If it were one in 10, it would be totally unacceptable, but the fact that there are that many in this survey is particularly disturbing,” Casey said.

Charles Robbins, executive director of the Trevor Project, said the Safe Schools Improvement Act would be effective in mitigating the harassment faced by LGBT students.

“Protecting young people from negative school environments plays a critical role in effective suicide prevention,” Robbin said. “The Safe Schools Improvement Act will improve outcomes for elementary and secondary-aged youth nationwide by collecting and reporting on instances of bullying and helping to provide better services for youth who are at risk, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth.”

Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, also expressed support for the legislation on behalf of his organization.

“NEA strongly supports the Safe Schools Improvement Act and ridding schools of bullying and harassment,” Van Roekel said. ”Our children are America’s greatest resource. And as educators, we want nothing more than to create a climate of civility and respect for all students, including LGBT students, in every public school.”

In the House, Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.) is set to introduce companion legislation. Kirk said Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), whom he described as a leader in anti-bullying efforts, could be an original co-sponsor of the legislation.

LGBT advocates have been talking about including this legislation — as well as the Student Non-Discrimination Act — as a component of Elementary & Secondary Act reauthorization when it comes before lawmakers during this Congress.

But Casey said many options are on the table for passing the legislation and he didn’t want to pin down any route for enacting it into law.

“We’re probably going to … debate the best way to move forward, and a lot of that, of course, is going to depend upon what happens on the budget and on the floor, so I don’t think we’re certain yet, just as we’re not certain about a lot of pieces of legislation,” Casey said.

Download a copy of the bill here.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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