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Suicides draw attention to anti-bullying bills

Experts say laws can reduce harassment in schools

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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.

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District of Columbia

Judy and Dennis Shepard discuss Nex Benedict, anti-LGBTQ laws at DC event

Nonbinary Okla. high school student died last month after fight

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Dennis and Judy Shephard speak at the Raben Group’s D.C. offices on Feb. 29, 2024. (Washington Blade photo by Amber Laenen)

Judy and Dennis Shepard on Thursday reflected on Nex Benedict’s death and the proliferation of anti-LGBTQ laws across the country during a discussion the Raben Group hosted at their D.C. office.

The discussion, which MSNBC host Jonathan Capehart moderated, took place less than a month after Benedict died.

Benedict, who was nonbinary, passed away on Feb. 8 after students at their high school in Owasso, Okla., assaulted them in a bathroom. 

Vice President Kamala Harris, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, House Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Republican Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt are among those who have publicly responded to Benedict’s death, which took place after they endured months of bullying. More than 300 advocacy groups have demanded Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters’ removal and called for a federal investigation into the Oklahoma Department of Education’s “actions and policies” that have facilitated a “culture where rampant harassment of 2SLGBTQI+ students has been allowed to go unchecked.”

“Parents are doing whatever they can to protect and encourage and support kids, and you have these what I call evil, evil people around the country pushing these laws,” said Dennis Shepard.

He noted lawmakers around the country are pushing anti-LGBTQ laws and other efforts that include the elimination of diversity, equity and inclusion programs. Dennis Shepard also highlighted an effort to defund gender studies programs at the University of Wyoming.

“[It is] the old white male, Christian geezers who want to go back to the days of the 50s when they had that superior arrogant attitude,” he said. “They’re losing it and they don’t want to, so they’re passing everything they can.”

“What happened to Nex is a result of that,” added Dennis Shepard. “They feel like Henderson and McKinney felt when they took Matt out on the prairie.”

Matthew Shepard died on Oct. 12, 1998, after Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney brutally beat him and left him tied to a fence in Laramie, Wyo. Then-President Barack Obama in 2009 signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which added sexual orientation and gender identity to the federal hate crimes law.

“If you’re considered different, you’re in fear of your life right now because you don’t fit in and it’s got to stop,” said Dennis Shepard.

Judy Shepard echoed her husband, noting this moment is “the last gasp of the fight against the community.” 

“In my heart, I know this is a moment in time, and it’s going to pass. But also in that time, all these young people, everyone in the community is afraid, but young people are being terrorized,” she said. “It just shouldn’t be happening.”

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U.S. Federal Courts

N.Y. AG joins multi-state brief in Colo. anti-trans discrimination case

Letitia James and 18 other attorneys general support plaintiff

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trans health care, gay news, Washington Blade
New York Attorney General Letitia James (Photo public domain)

New York Attorney General Letitia James on Wednesday joined a brief by 18 other Democratic state attorneys general urging the Colorado Supreme Court to uphold a lower court ruling against Masterpiece Cakeshop for anti-trans discrimination.

A customer, Autumn Scardina, sued the business over claims that it refused to provide her a cake upon learning that it was for a celebration of her transition. The case is not the first in which owner Jack Smith has faced claims of anti-LGBTQ discrimination.

In 2012, Masterpiece Cakeshop refused to fulfill an order for a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, which led to the 2018 U.S. Supreme Court case Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission — and a narrow ruling that did not address core legal questions weighing the constitutionality of First Amendment claims vis-a-vis the government’s enforcement of LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination laws.

“Denying service to someone simply because of who they are is illegal discrimination, plain and simple,” James said in a press release. “Allowing this kind of behavior would undermine our nation’s fundamental values of freedom and equality and set a dangerous precedent.”

She added, “I am proud to stand with my fellow attorneys general against this blatant transphobic discrimination.”

The Colorado Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Scardina, noting that Smith objected to fulfilling her cake order only after learning about her intended use for it “and that Phillips did not believe the cake itself expressed any inherent message.”

The fact pattern in both cases against Masterpiece Cakeshop resembles that of another case that originated in Colorado and was ultimately decided by the Supreme Court last year, 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis.

This time, the justices did not sidestep the question of whether the state’s anti-discrimination law can be enforced against a business owner, Lorie Smith, a website designer who claimed religious protections for her refusal to provide services to a same-sex couple for their nuptials.

The court’s conservative supermajority ruled in favor of Smith, which was widely seen as a blow to LGBTQ rights.

Joining James in her brief are the attorneys general of Connecticut, Delaware, Hawai’i, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington and D.C.

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U.S. Federal Courts

Fla. man found guilty of threatening George Santos

Gay former NY congressman expelled in December

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Former U.S. Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.) (Washington Blade photo by Christopher Kane)

On Feb. 22, following a two-day trial, a federal jury in Ft. Lauderdale convicted a man for calling the office of former U.S. Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.) in D.C. and threatening to kill the member of Congress and another person. 

On Jan. 29, 2023, Frank Stanzione, 53, of Boynton Beach, Fla., made a telephone call from his residence in Boynton Beach to the office of a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Stanzione left a voice message for the member that stated the following:

“[Victim 1 former Rep. Santos] you fat fucking piece of shit fucker. You better watch your mother fucking back because I’m gonna bash your mother fucking fucker head in with a bat until your brains are splattered across the fucking wall. You lying, disgusting, disgraceful, mother fucking fucker. You mother fucking piece of shit. You’re gonna get fucking murdered you goddamn lying piece of garbage. Watch your back you fat, ugly, piece of shit. You and [Victim 2 Redacted] are dead.”

The congressman’s chief of staff reported the message to the U.S. Capitol Police the next morning. The USCP began investigating the voice message as a threat and determined that it was made from a telephone number assigned to Stanzione. 

On Jan. 31, 2023, USCP special agents went to the address associated with the telephone number and interviewed Stanzione. USCP confirmed that Stanzione had left the voice message for the congressman. Stanzione found the telephone number on an online search engine. 

In a motion to dismiss, lawyers for Stanzione noted in the interview he told federal agents that “he feels offended by Santos and does not want him in his (gay) community.” He said he left the message to make Santos “feel like a piece of shit.”

The court filing described Stanzione as “a long-standing, active advocate for gay rights.”

In the motion to dismiss, Stanzione claimed his prosecution was “retaliatory and vindictive” and “based upon his exercise of political speech related to gay rights.”

“Others who have allegedly committed similar acts,” his attorneys stated in the motion, “have not been prosecuted.” 

U.S. Attorney Markenzy Lapointe for the Southern District of Florida and USCP Chief J. Thomas Manger announced the guilty verdict. The USCP – Threat Assessment Section investigated the case. 

Stanzione will be sentenced in May and faces penalties including up to five years in federal prison, a fine of up to $250,000, or both.

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