Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), a former chair of the Colorado State Board of Education, announced during a conference call with reporters his plans to reintroduce the Student Non-Discrimination Act in the U.S. House.
“We need to protect kids at school regardless of what adults think about the different ways that people live their lives,” Polis said. “Our schools need to be a safe place where everybody can go to learn; nobody should be forced to drop out or not attend school for fear. Education is the right of every student, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.”
Modeled after Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, SNDA establishes LGBT students as a protected class and prohibits schools from discriminating against any student based on actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity, including by allowing bullying against them. According to the LGBT Equality Caucus, the language in the new bill is the same as it has been in previous years.
The bill has bipartisan support right off the bat.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), a former Florida certified teacher and is known as the most pro-LGBT Republican in the U.S. House, is among the original co-sponsors of SNDA.
“There are currently no protections for federal law against this discrimination and harassment based on sexual orientation or gender identity, so the federal law is failing LGBT students and this is an injustice that needs to be corrected,” Ros-Lehtinen said.
Ros-Lehtinen added she hopes that “every legislator — whether they’re Democrat or Republican” can look at the legislation “in a sensible way” and realize that LGBT students should be a protected class against discrimination.
Polis said each of the six openly LGB members of Congress — himself, Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Mark Takano (D-Calif.) — are among the co-sponsors of the legislation. Polis also identified House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) as an original co-sponsor.
Joining the lawmakers on the conference call was a student and a parent of a student who say they’ve experienced discrimination in schools based on LGBT status.
Becky Collins talked about how her son Zach Collins was bullied for being gay while attending school in Chillicothe, Ohio.
“I have called the school several times while he was in grade school, then middle school came — and it’s more hurtful words, it’s shoving him into the locker, it’s touching him inappropriately,” Collins said. “My son, he just kind of took it with a grain of salt, even though I kept calling, kept calling. They said, ‘We’ll talk to him. We’ll talk to him.’ And still nothing changed for my son.”
After this bullying led to her son being beaten in the classroom two years ago, Collins said she had to involve the local sheriff because the school wouldn’t take action. Instead, the school principal urged her son to be the one to make the change so that he would no longer be targeted.
“The principal looks at my son and says, ‘I don’t have any other problem with any other student but you. What can we do to change you?’” Collins said. “They wanted my son to change, not the children that are torturing him daily, shoving him into walls and lockers and touching him in places that you shouldn’t touch another person.”
Also on the call was Bayli Silberstein, a bisexual eighth grade student from Florida who spoke about the difficulties she’s facing in her attempts to create a Gay-Straight Alliance to address the bullying that she and her friends face.
“My friends and I tried to start one last year, and our principal said ‘no,’” Silberstein said. “But they already had some clubs; they had a Christian club and they had a bullying club. So I was a little confused, and I wanted to try again. And the principal said we had to submit it to the school board. They made a really big deal out of it, and tried to cancel all extracurricular clubs for every middle school in the county.”
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, students already have the right to form GSAs under the Equal Access Act, a 1984 law that compels secondary schools to provide equal access to extracurricular clubs.
Ellen Kahn, director of the Human Rights Campaign Family Project, offered statistics demonstrating the degree of bullying that LGBT students face in schools.
According to an HRC survey cited by Kahn, 64 percent of LGBT teens — compared to 47 percent of non-LGBT teens — never participate in afterschool activities out of fear of discrimination or bullying. She also said LGBT youth are twice as likely as their non-LGBT peers to experience to bullying or harassment in school.
“While most of the bullying and exclusion is the perpetuated by their peers, we also know that adults who work in our schools — from bus drivers, to teachers — engage in anti-LGBT behavior and discrimination as well,” Kahn said.
Passage of SNDA — as with any pro-LGBT bill — will be difficult along as a Republican majority controls the House, but Polis nonetheless saw an opportunity for passage if Congress takes up the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
“There’s dozens, if not hundreds, of education bills and certainly a number of others that I co-sponsor that we hope to include in ESEA reauthorization,” Polis said. “We don’t know the overall likelihood of ESEA reauthorization, but it certainly remains one of my top priorities, and of course, including SNDA as part of that is critical.”
Last year, LGBT groups urged the Senate Education Labor and Pensions Committee to include SNDA when it marked up ESEA reauthorization. Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), who has sponsored SNDA in the Senate, gave an impassioned speech against anti-gay bullying before the committee, but withdrew the measure as an amendment. After the larger vehicle was reported out of committee, it didn’t go anywhere and ultimately died in the Senate.
Polis acknowledged another more challenging route for the bill is passage of the measure as a standalone bill through a markup process in the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. The Colorado said he intends to speak with Chairman John Kline (R-Minn.) about the legislation to pursue this path, but the more co-sponsors would build pressure on him to markup the bill.
LGBT groups praised SNDA upon Polis reintroduction of the bill as means to ensure LGBT youth are protected from discrimination and harassment while attending school.
Ian Thompson, legislative representative of the ACLU, was among those who hailed the bill and called it “the single most important step” that Congress could take to help LGBT students.
“Though the pace of positive progress on LGBT rights over the past several years has been dizzying, there is shockingly no federal law that explicitly protects LGBT students from discrimination and harassment in our nation’s public schools,” Thompson said. “We urge Congress to pass this bipartisan legislation and in doing so affirm that every student deserves the opportunity to attend school and learn without fear.”
On the same day that Polis introduced SNDA, a group of more than 82 advocacy organizations sent a letter to members of Congress urging them to sign on in support of the legislation.
“The Student Non-Discrimination Act presents us with a historic opportunity to offer critical protections to current and future generations of LGBT youth and their student allies by ensuring that discrimination against and harassment of students on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity will have no place in our country’s public elementary and secondary schools,” the letter states.
Signers of the letter include LGBT groups, such as the Human Rights Campaign, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Action Fund, the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network and Log Cabin Republicans, and other groups, such as the ACLU, the NAACP and the National Council of La Raza.
The exact timing for Senate introduction of SNDA is unknown. A Senate aide said Franken is planning on introducing the bill in the upcoming weeks.
Another bill that would address anti-gay bullying is the Safe Schools Improvement Act, which would require schools to adopt codes of conduct against bullying, including on the basis of LGBT status, and report bullying data to Department of Education Education. That legislation is sponsored by Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.) in the House and Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) in the Senate.
Following calls from LGBT advocates, the White House announced last year that President Obama had endorsed both SNDA and SSIA. Asked whether Obama still holds the position on both bills today, Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, said Obama supports “the goals” of SNDA.
“We support the goals of the Student Non-Discrimination Act introduced by Congressman Polis today,” Inouye said. “We look forward to working with Congress to ensure that all students, including LGBT students, are safe and healthy and can learn in environments free from discrimination, bullying, and harassment.”