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Advocates push Obama on education reform

Seeking bipartisan support for pro-LGBT changes

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President Obama addresses attendees at anti-bullying conference (Blade photo by Michael Key).

LGBT rights supporters are pushing for the inclusion of student anti-bullying and non-discrimination measures as part of upcoming education reform legislation as observers say bipartisan support and pressure from the White House are needed to ensure they’re included in any larger vehicle that makes it to President Obama’s desk.

Obama has identified reauthorization of the Elementary & Secondary Education Act, updated during the Bush administration as No Child Left Behind, during his State of the Union address as among his priorities for the 112th Congress and has been touring the country with education leaders — including Education Secretary Arne Duncan — to make the case for education reform.

Last week during a speech before Kenmore Middle School students in Arlington, Va., Obama noted support for updating No Child Left Behind in Congress and called on lawmakers to send him education reform legislation before the next school year begins in the fall.

“I am proud of the commitment by Democrats and Republicans in Congress to fix No Child Left Behind, to make this reform a reality — because they recognize education is an area where we can’t afford to drag our feet,” Obama said. “As Arne says, our kids only get one shot at an education, and we’ve got to get it right.”

Whether the 112th Congress can reauthorize No Child Left Behind remains in question as the leaders in the Republican-controlled House and the Democratic-controlled Senate differ on what reform should look like. Even if passage can happen, many political observers have said Obama’s goal of passing education reform by end of summer is unrealistic.

Components of education reform that Obama has enumerated support for include implementing an accountability system that shares responsibility for improvement and rewards excellence; having a flexible system that empowers school administrators and teachers; and having a system that targets resources to persistently low-performing schools and ensures the most effective teachers serve students most in need.

But LGBT rights supporters are looking to No Child Left Behind reauthorization as as a vehicle to pass various bills pending before Congress that aim to combat bullying and discrimination against LGBT students.

In the Senate, Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) sponsors the Safe Schools Improvement Act, an anti-bullying measure, which, among other things, would require public schools to establish codes of conduct explicitly prohibiting bullying and harassment. Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.) is expected to introduce companion legislation in the House.

Similar legislation that aims to help LGBT students is the Student Non-Discrimination Act. Introduced by gay lawmaker Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) in the House and Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) in the Senate, the legislation prohibits public schools and school programs from discriminating against LGBT students.

Additionally, the Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act — sponsored by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) in the Senate and Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) in the House — would require colleges to establish policies against harassment.

The bill is named after a Rutgers University student who leaped off the George Washington Bridge in September after a video was posted online of him reportedly having a sexual encounter with another man in his dorm room. However, this legislation has a lower profile than either the Safe Schools Improvement Act or the Student Non-Discrimination Act.

LGBT advocates working to advance these measures say talks are already taking place on Capitol Hill to include them as part of No Child Left Behind reauthorization as discussions begin over passage of the larger vehicle.

Shawn Gaylord, director of public policy for Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, confirmed talks have already started on including pro-LGBT measures as part of education reform.

“We and other groups have been talking to committee staff for quite a while about that possibility,” Gaylord said. “Throughout this Congress, we’ve been talking to committee staff and making sure they were aware of our hope of getting legislation included in ESEA reauthorization.”

Gaylord said he’s “hopeful” that the pro-LGBT measures will be integrated as part of No Child Left Behind reauthorization. In 2007, when Congress was undertaking a previous attempt to enact education reform, Gaylord said nearly the entire Safe Schools Improvement Act was included in the discussion drafts of Elementary & Secondary Act reauthorization.

“So there’s precedent for it,” Gaylord said. “To deal with issues of bullying or discrimination — it’s not as if that’s not what ESEA reauthorization would cover.”

A Republican strategist familiar with education reform, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said it’s too early to tell whether education reform — LGBT-inclusive or otherwise — can make it to the president’s desk during this Congress, but expressed optimism about the effort.

“The good thing is that, obviously, Republicans and Democrats haven’t been agreeing on too much lately, but the one area where folks think there is a real chance for them to come to agreement is on education and what to do with No Child Left Behind reauthorization,” the strategist said. “If anything can get bipartisan support and get done this year, it’s probably that.”

With Republicans in control of the House and a Democratic majority in the Senate, observers maintain that bipartisan agreement on inclusion of the pro-LGBT measures is necessary for them to stay on as a component of the larger bill.

One LGBT rights advocate, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said staffers on the Senate HELP Committee have indicated that passage of No Child Left Behind reauthorization with LGBT inclusion will depend on support from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

“I would say that they are hopeful, but realistic that the likelihood is almost entirely dependent on a bipartisan effort,” the source said.

A spokesperson for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) deferred comment on the issue to the House Education & Workforce Committee, which didn’t respond to the Washington Blade’s request for comment.

On the Senate side, Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee, is a co-sponsor of the Safe Schools Improvement Act. Justine Sessions, a committee spokesperson, said Harkin hopes to include the pro-LGBT measures as part of education reform.

“Chairman Harkin is a strong supporter of efforts to protect students against discrimination and bullying, and hopes to address these issues in the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act,” she said.

Bipartisan support could emerge for the Safe Schools Improvement Act because Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) is an original co-sponsor for the legislation. A former House member, Kirk has said in the lower chamber of Congress Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) could be an original co-sponsor of the legislation.

For the Student Non-Discrimination Act, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) is a GOP co-sponsor on the House side. The Senate version doesn’t have a Republican co-sponsor. The Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act doesn’t have a GOP co-sponsor in either the House or Senate.

The sources said Kirk’s support for the Safe Schools Improvement Act could be used to leverage support from Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), ranking member of the Senate HELP Committee, for inclusion of the bill as part of the larger vehicle.

Gaylord said additional GOP co-sponsors for the standalone pro-LGBT legislation would help bolster their chances of success as part of education reform.

“I just think more Republican support for these bills will obviously be important, particularly in the House,” he said.

The Republican strategist said leadership from Senate Democrats “saying that this is something important” is needed to ensure LGBT anti-bullying and non-discrimination language are included in education reform.

“You’re also going to need to demonstrate enough Republican support on the House side that Republicans are able to allow it to end up in the final package,” the strategist said.

LGBT rights supporters also say that pressure from the White House and explict endorsements of the anti-bullying and non-discrimination from Obama are important to ensure they’re part of larger legislation.

Support for those measures from Obama would build on the anti-bullying conference that the White House held this month to shed light on harassment of students and devise ways to mitigate bullying against students — both in schools and online.

Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, said the president supports “the goals” of the pro-LGBT bills and wants to ensure students are free from harassment as they pursue their studies.

“This year, when the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is being considered, we look forward to working with Congress to ensure that all students are safe and healthy and can learn in environments free from discrimination, bullying and harassment,” Inouye said.

Gaylord said he welcomes the steps that White House has taken against student bullying and harassment, but noted the president has yet to voice explicit support for the pro-LGBT bills.

“The administration has not yet called for passage of either [the Safe Schools Improvement Act or the Student Non-Discrimination Act] by name, so that is sort of the next step,” Gaylord said. “Now would be that time that we would really anticipate the administration to step up and be even more specific in their support for legislative vehicles.”

The anonymous Republican strategist said “there’s no question” anti-bullying efforts are a priority for the Obama administration, but the extent to which the president will fight for passage of legislation remains to be seen.

“That has not been translated into support for specific legislation, so I think the jury’s still out on the degree to which the administration will advocate for this particular change — whether they’ll advocate for it all or whether they’ll advocate for it specifically as a part of this education revamp.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the House version of the Student Non-Discrimination Act doesn’t have a Republican co-sponsor. The Washington Blade regrets the error.

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Florida House committee passes “Don’t Say Gay” bill

“LGBTQ people are your neighbors, family members, and friends. We are a normal, healthy part of society and we will not be erased”

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Florida State Capitol building

TALLAHASSEE – A Republican majority Florida House Education & Employment Committee passed HB 1557, the Parental Rights in Education bill, colloquially referred to as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill advancing the measure to the full House.

HB 1557 and its companion Senate bill SB 1834, would ban classroom discussions about sexual orientation and gender identity in schools, erasing LGBTQ identity, history, and culture — as well as LGBTQ students themselves.

The bill also has provisions that appear to undermine LGBTQ support in schools and include vague parental notification requirements which could effectively “out” LGBTQ-identifying students to their parents without their consent.

“The Trevor Project’s research has found that LGBTQ youth who learned about LGBTQ issues or people in classes at school had 23% lower odds of reporting a suicide attempt in the past year. This bill will erase young LGBTQ students across Florida, forcing many back into the closet by policing their identity and silencing important discussions about the issues they face,” said Sam Ames, Director of Advocacy and Government Affairs at The Trevor Project. “LGBTQ students deserve their history and experiences to be reflected in their education, just like their peers.”

In an email to the Blade, Brandon J. Wolf, the Press Secretary for Equality Florida noted; “Governor DeSantis’ march toward his own personal surveillance state continues. Today, the Don’t Say Gay bill, a piece of legislation to erase discussion of LGBTQ people from schools in Florida, passed its first committee and became another component of an agenda designed to police us in our classrooms, doctor’s offices, and workplaces. Make no mistake — LGBTQ people are your neighbors, family members, and friends. We are a normal, healthy part of society and we will not be erased.”

The Trevor Project’s 2021 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health found that more than 42% of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year, including more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth.

According to a recent poll conducted by Morning Consult on behalf of The Trevor Project, 85% of transgender and nonbinary youth — and two-thirds of all LGBTQ youth (66%) — say recent debates about state laws restricting the rights of transgender people have negatively impacted their mental health.

When asked about proposed legislation that would require schools to tell a student’s parent or guardian if they request to use a different name/pronoun or if they identify as LGBTQ at school, 56% of transgender and nonbinary youth said it made them feel angry, 47% felt nervous and/or scared, 45% felt stressed, and more than 1 in 3 felt sad.

If you or someone you know needs help or support, The Trevor Project’s trained crisis counselors are available 24/7 at 1-866-488-7386, via chat at TheTrevorProject.org/Get-Help, or by texting START to 678678. 

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California mom claims school manipulated child into changing gender identity

Jessica Konen gave the school permission to use the boy’s name for attendance and tried to be supportive but noted it was difficult for her

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Fox News host Laura Ingraham & Center for American Liberty CEO Harmeet Dhillon with client, Jessica Konen (Screenshot Fox News)

A Northern California mother is claiming teachers in a small school district in the state manipulated her daughter into changing her gender identity and name in a legal claim. 

The claim, filed by the ultra-conservative Center for American Liberty on behalf of the mother, alleged “extreme and outrageous conduct” by the Spreckels Union School District, leading Jessica Konen’s 11-year-old daughter to change her gender identity and drive a wedge between them.

Specifically, the claim, a precursor to a lawsuit, names two teachers – Lori Caldera and Kelly Baraki – at Buena Vista Middle who, in addition to teaching, ran the school’s Equality Club, later known as UBU (You Be You). Buena Vista is a part of the district. 

It comes after Abigail Shrier, the author of a book widely criticized as anti-trans, quoted what the two educators said last year at the California Teachers Association’s annual LGBTQ+ Issues Conference in a piece headlined “How Activist Teachers Recruit Kids.” Caldera and Baraki spoke about the difficulty of running a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) in a socially conservative community. 

After the article was published, the teachers were put on administrative leave, and the district hired a law firm to investigate, which is ongoing. The UBU club was suspended. 

Spreckels is a town of about 400 people in the agricultural Salinas Valley, approximately 90 miles south of San Francisco

According to the complaint, Konen’s daughter began attending Equality Club meetings after being invited by a friend when she started sixth grade at Buena Vista. After attending one session, she decided it wasn’t for her until Caldiera convinced her to come back. At the gatherings, Caldera and Baraki held LGBTQ-centered discussions and introduced students to different gender identities and sexualities. 

During her time in the club, Konen’s daughter began exploring her own gender identity and sexuality, choosing to wear more masuline clothes. At some point, she decided to change her name and pronouns, which she has since changed back to her original name and pronouns. 

Konen said she was aware her daughter was bisexual but did not know she began using a male name and gender pronouns until she was called into the school when her daughter was in seventh grade. The meeting caught both Konen and her daughter by surprise – Konen’s daughter had said she wanted to notify her mother, but she did not know the meeting was that day. 

Konen gave the school permission to use the boy’s name for attendance and tried to be supportive but noted it was difficult for her. 

However, when Shrier’s article was published and circulated around the small town, everything changed. At this time, Konen’s daughter was again using a female name and pronouns.

In the leaked recording from the LGBTQ conference, Caldera and Baraki were discussing how they kept meetings private, among other things. 

“When we were doing our virtual learning — we totally stalked what they were doing on Google, when they weren’t doing school work,” Baraki said. “One of them was googling ‘Trans Day of Visibility.’ And we’re like, ‘Check.’ We’re going to invite that kid when we get back on campus.”

However, Caldera told the San Francisco Chronicle that the quotes were either taken out of context or misrepresented. According to Caldera, the stalking comment was a joke. She also defended their work, saying students lead the conversation and they provide honest and fair answers to their questions.
In addition, a spokesperson for the California Teachers Association criticized the group bringing the lawsuit forward, according to the Associated Press: “We are concerned about a political climate right now in which outside political forces fuel chaos and misinformation and seek to divide parents, educators and school communities for their own political gain, which is evident in this complaint. The Center for American Liberty is concerned with pushing its own political agenda through litigation and has filed multiple lawsuits against various school districts and communities.”

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GOP majority city council to repeal LGBTQ+ law in Pennsylvania

“I don’t know of any reasons for repealing it other than a political move […] This issue should not be politicized”

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Chambersburg, Pennsylvania (Photo Credit: Borough of Chambersburg)

The council of this central Pennsylvania borough (town) will meet on Monday, January 24 for a likely vote to repeal an ordinance passed this last October that safeguards residents against discrimination based on their sexual orientation, ethnicity or gender identity.

Opposition to the ordinance is led by newly installed borough council president Allen Coffman, a Republican. In an interview with media outlet Penn Live Saturday, Coffman said, “All of us that ran in this election to be on council we think we got a mandate from the people,” he said. “People we talked to when we were campaigning did not like this ordinance at all. I don’t know what the vote will be, but I have a pretty good idea.”

The political makeup of the council changed with the November municipal election, which ushered in a 7-3 Republican majority.

The ordinance, which extends protections against discrimination to gay, transgender or genderqueer people in employment, housing and public accommodations, was passed in October by the then-Democratic majority council, Penn Live reported.

“I don’t know of any reasons for repealing it other than a political move,” said Alice Elia, a Democrat and the former Chambersburg borough council president. “This issue should not be politicized. It’s an issue of justice and having equal protection for everybody in our community. It shouldn’t be a political or a Democratic or Republican issue. This should be something we are all concerned about.”

Coffman told Penn Live that the ordinance serves no purpose and is redundant. He points out that Pennsylvania’s Human Relations Commission handles discrimination complaints from residents across the state.

“There are no penalties, no fines,” he said. “There’s nothing that the ordinance can make someone do. The most they can hope for is that the committee request the two parties to sit down with a counselor or mediator and talk about it. Quite frankly there is nothing that compels them to. There’s no teeth in this.”

Penn Live’s Ivey DeJesus noted if Chambersburg succeeds in repealing the ordinance, it would mark the first time an LGBTQ inclusive law is revoked in Pennsylvania. To date, 70 municipalities have ratified such ordinances.

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is one of the 27 states in the nation that have no explicit statewide laws protecting people from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in employment, housing and public accommodations.

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