October 20, 2011 | by Chris Johnson
Senate panel omits bullying bills from education reform

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

A Senate committee left out pro-LGBT anti-bullying measures from education reform as the sponsors of the legislation pledged to offer these bills as amendments on the floor.

The Senate Health, Education, Education & Pensions Committee late Thursday reported out a massive education bill known as Elementary & Secondary Education Act reauthorization by a bipartisan vote of 15-7.

But the Democratic-controllled panel didn’t vote on pro-LGBT bills that advocates were seeking to have included as part of the larger legislation — the Student Non-Discrimination Act, or SNDA, and the Safe Schools Improvement Act, or SSIA.

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), the sponsor of SNDA, and Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), the sponsor of SSIA, both offered their bills as amendments during the markup, but withdrew them before a vote could be held.

During the markup, Franken delivered a speech in which he said he feels “very, very strongly” about SNDA as he pledged to bring up the measure as an amendment on the floor.

Franken said recent stories about gay youths committing suicide after they had been bullied in school demonstrates the need for passing SNDA. One such youth, Justin Aaberg, a gay 15-year old who committed suicide last year, resided in Franken’s state of Minnesota.

“We are faced with a group of students that is facing pervasive discrimination,” Franken said. “They are being viciously harassed and bullied. They are staying home from school. They are dropping out of school. They are literally killing themselves, and our schools aren’t doing enough to stop it. And yet again, these students have nothing they can do about it. There is no law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in schools.”

April Mellody, a Casey spokesperson, said Casey also introduced his bill as an amendment, but then “made the difficult decision” to withdraw the measure because it feared it would sink the education bill as a whole.

“Pennsylvania teachers, principals, and parents have been asking for a new law to replace No Child Left Behind since he arrived in the Senate and he felt he could not jeopardize the bipartisan committee vote to pass ESEA out of committee,” Mellody said.

Mellody added Casey “is committed to addressing the bullying epidemic” and intends to offer his bill as an amendment again when the full Senate considers the larger education legislation.

Justine Sessions, a Senate HELP committee spokesperson, said committee Chair Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) indicated he hopes the full Senate will take up the education reform bill during the next work period. The Senate is out of session next week for recess.

Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, chided the committee for not including the pro-LGBT measures as part of the education bill before it went to the Senate floor.

“We are disappointed that the committee did not adopt anti-LGBT bullying amendments that enjoyed bipartisan, majority support,” Solmonese said. “This major reauthorization bill was the best opportunity the Senate will have in this Congress to address the problem of bullying faced by LGBT students. It is imperative that the committee revisit this issue and acknowledge the consequences bullying has on the youth in our community.”

Both Franken and Casey would have more difficulty having successful votes for their legislation on the floor than they would in committee.

Each of the 12 Democrats on the Senate HELP Committee co-sponsor SNDA, which would easily have given the measure the necessary votes for inclusion as part of education reform during the panel markup.

Only 11 members of the committee co-sponsor of SSIA, which is one vote short necessary for passage. Ten Democrats are co-sponsors in addition to Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), an original co-sponsors. However, the two of the Democrats who aren’t co-sponsors — Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) — would likely have voted for the measure should it have come up in committee, giving the amendment the necessary support for passage.

If Franken and Casey were to offer SNDA and SSIA on the Senate floor, they would likely need 60 votes to overcome a Senate filibuster.

The number of co-sponsors for the legislation aren’t anywhere near 60 and neither bill enjoys significant Republican support. SNDA has 34 co-sponsors — all Democrats. SSIA has 32 co-sponsors and Kirk is the only Republican supporter.

An LGBT advocate earlier this week speaking anonymously identified Harkin as the “obstacle” to including SNDA and SSIA as part of education reform during the markup and said he wanted a clean bill that could easily pass committee.

Harkin is a co-sponsor of both SNDA and SSIA. A Harkin spokesperson responded to the charge by saying the senator has “long supported efforts to ensure that all children feel safe and secure in our schools.”

Additionally, President Obama has yet to endorse either SSIA or SNDA. The White House has said it supports the goals of the legislation, but hasn’t offered explicit support for the bills.

Watch the video of Franken’s remarks before the committee on SNDA 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

7 Comments
  • That’s ok, we can do it at our local school board level. Occupy your school board and demand anti-bullying policies. Withdraw your children from the school it the board will not cooperate.

  • So, federal Democrats clearly have the votes to advance an LGBT bill, but don’t.

    We’ve seen this behavior before. Is anyone really surprised?

    Until there are consequences for someone’s failure, they will continue to act in the same manner.

  • Both of these amendments should have been attached and it would have moved on to the Senate floor. I really do find it frustrating that the Dems in the Senate continuously leave us hanging and don’t come through for us.

  • Michael Romanello

    We’ve seen this behavior before, most notably when Matthew Shepard was killed and there was immediately much Democratic handwringing and promises of legislative action on the Hill following by an absolute lack of action for 10 years. So what if gay kids are being terrorized and dying in American schools and neighborhoods? A good politican can’t let something like that disrupt his or her legislative agenda.

  • Sorely, SORELY disappointed Mr. Franken, not only that these kids have died in vain, but that more will die as a rezult of your own personal decision in this matter.

    When will you actually take a stand rather than merely orate?

  • Very disappointing that both Senator Casey and Senator Franken withdrew their bills from committee consideration where they had a reasonable chance of passage. It’s doubtful that these amendments will garner the necessary 60 votes on the floor. But I guess we shouldn’t be surprised. Casey has disappointed us before and still has not signed on as a co-sponsor of the Respect for Marriage Act while 30 other Senators have.

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