November 2, 2011 at 9:59 am EDT | by Chris Johnson
LGBT groups withhold support from education bill

Several LGBT organizations say they “do not support” the Senate version of education reform legislation as it currently stands due to the lack of protections for LGBT students and what they say is a rollback of federal accountability for schools.

In a letter dated Nov. 1, a group of eight LGBT organizations wrote to leaders on the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee to express “grave concerns” about the Elementary & Secondary Education reauthorization bill and to withhold support from the bill.

“As legal and advocacy organizations committed to ensuring that [LGBT] students, as well as those who are perceived to be LGBT, have access to an education unhindered by discrimination and harassment, we are writing to express our grave concerns with the Elementary and Secondary Education Reauthorization Act of 2011, which we do not support in its current form,” the letter states.

The Senate HELP Committee passed the ESEA reauthorization bill on Oct. 20 with a bipartisan vote of 15-7. However, despite calls from LGBT advocates, measures providing explicit protections for LGBT students known as the Student Non-Discrimination Act and the Safe Schools Improvement Act weren’t included in the larger bill.

The letter has eight co-signers: the American Civil Liberties Union, the Family Equality Council, Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, Lambda Legal, the National Black Justice Coalition, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force Action Fund and PFLAG National. The Human Rights Campaign and the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network are not among the co-signers.

The letter, addressed to Senate HELP Committee Chair Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Ranking Member Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), asks the senators to “address our significant concerns” as the legislative process moves forward

The signers criticize the lack of explicit protections for LGBT students in the education reform bill on the basis that studies have shown LGBT students are a vulnerable group and face a higher risk of suicide. The letter says the education bill, intended to update the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, is “the ideal vehicle” to address the problem.

“Discrimination and harassment of LGBT students, and those perceived to be LGBT, is a serious problem in public elementary and secondary school districts across the United States,” the letter states. “Despite this fact, the ESEA Reauthorization Act of 2011 fails to include any express protections for this vulnerable student population, or even to make reference to them.”

The groups write that the need for the federal government and schools to act to address discrimination and harassment of LGBT students “is critical.” Additionally, they urge that the action taken shouldn’t “rely on overly punitive school discipline policies which worsen the problem of the school-to-prison pipeline.”

The groups also say they “share the concerns” of other civil rights organizations, business groups and education officials on what they say is the bill’s “weak accountability system” for schools. Non-LGBT groups involved in education, including the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, have said the legislation doesn’t require states and districts to set measurable goals for students and lacks consequences for states failing to demonstrate continuous improvement.

The letter says proposed rollbacks will “have a particularly harmful impact” on minority students, such as students with disabilities, low-income students and students of color — as well as LGBT students.

“Unfortunately, this reauthorization, in its current form, will permit far too many low-achieving students across the country to slip through the cracks, without any federal accountability,” the letter concludes.

In response to the letter, a Harkin spokesperson said the senator “has long supported efforts to ensure that all children feel safe and secure in our schools.”

“As is well-known and as he emphasized during the Committee’s consideration of the bill to fix NCLB, Chairman Harkin believes that no student should be forced to endure harassment, discrimination, violence, bullying or intimidation for any reason, including their sexual orientation or gender identity, and is an original cosponsor of the Student Non-Discrimination Act,” the spokesperson.

The Student Non-Discrimination Act, or SNDA, would prohibit school activities receiving federal funds from discriminating against or allowing the harassment of LGBT students. During the committee markup of the education reform bill, SNDA’s sponsor, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn) introduced the bill as an amendment but then withdrew the measure before a vote could be held, saying he would introduce the measure on the Senate floor.

The Harkin spokesperson said the senator “is committed to working with Sen. Franken to bring up and pass SNDA as an amendment when the reauthorization of ESEA comes before the full Senate and is hopeful that his colleagues will join him in standing against discrimination, bullying and harassment of any student.”

Enzi’s office didn’t respond to the Washington Blade’s request for comment on the letter or concerns about the lack of protections for LGBT students in the measure.

In addition to SNDA, the Safe Schools Improvement Act, or SSIA, is another bill that would address school bullying. The legislation would require schools receiving federal funds to adopt codes of conduct that prohibit bullying and harassment, including on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. The bill was also offered as an amendment during the markup by its sponsor, Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), who withdrew it before a vote could be held and said he’d bring the measure up on the floor.

Although the education reform bill doesn’t contain either SNDA or SSIA, the legislation addresses bullying under a provision called Successful, Safe and Healthy Schools, which requires schools receiving grants under the program to have student conduct policies that prohibit bullying and harassment.

Ian Thompson, the ACLU’s legislative representative, said the general anti-harassment language in the education reform legislation isn’t enough for the signers of the letter.

“The general anti-harassment language in ESEA is insufficient, as it includes no enumeration, including actual/perceived sexual orientation and gender identity,” Thompson said. “In addition, we feel strongly that it is critically important to bring LGBT students under the protections of federal civil rights law, as SNDA would do.”

The absence of two LGBT groups — HRC and GLSEN — from the list of signers is notable because HRC is the largest LGBT rights organization and GLSEN is the LGBT group that focuses most directly on LGBT students.

Michael Cole-Schwartz, an HRC spokesperson, said the organization shares the concerns expressed in the letter, but didn’t want to sign a missive withholding support for ESEA reauthorization.

“We share the concerns but we do not have a position on the underlying ESEA reauthorization bill therefore we were unable to sign a letter that said we ‘do not support’ it,” Cole-Schwartz said.

Daryl Presgraves, a GLSEN spokesperson, said his organization is working to pass specific pro-LGBT student bills, but backs the organizations that signed the letter.

“Our focus has been specific to SSIA/SNDA, but we support the work of our partners who signed on,” Presgraves said.


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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