March 8, 2012 at 6:46 pm EST | by Chris Johnson
70 groups call on Obama to endorse anti-bullying legislation

A group of 70 organizations is asking President Obama to build on his work against bullying in schools by endorsing legislation pending in Congress that would prohibit harassment of LGBT students.

In a letter dated March 7, the groups ask Obama to endorse the Student Non-Discrimination Act, or SNDA, which would prohibit and harassment in public elementary and secondary schools based on a student’s actual or perceived LGBT status. No federal law explicitly prohibits harassment against LGBT students in school.

“SNDA would provide lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (“LGBT”) students with long overdue and much needed explicit federal protections against discrimination and harassment,” the letter states. “The legislation also protects students who associate with LGBT people, including students with LGBT parents and friends.”

The organizations — led by the American Civil Liberties Union — include LGBT groups such as the Human Rights Campaign, Lambda Legal and the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, or GLSEN, as well as other groups, such as the American Psychological Association, the Feminist Majority and the Southern Poverty Law Center. Religious groups, such as the Episcopal Church, the Methodist Church and the United Church of Christ also signed the letter.

Obama has said he’s committed to combatting bullying and harassment in schools, but has yet to endorse legislation that would explicitly prohibit the bullying of LGBT students.

The letter asks Obama to endorse SNDA so that it has the same level of support from the White House as other pro-LGBT bills, such as the Respect for Marriage Act, which Obama endorsed in June, or the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.

“An endorsement of the Student Non-Discrimination Act would likewise be a clarion call for equality in our schools and better protections for vulnerable children,” the letter states. “And more importantly, it would make clear to all Members of Congress what the administration views as a necessary federal legislative solution to the serious problem of anti-LGBT discrimination and harassment in our nation’s public schools.”

Groups send the letter to Obama ahead of March 10, which will mark the anniversary of the anti-bullying summit held at the White House in 2011. The event was seen as the hallmark effort of Obama’s commitment to combat bullying in schools.

Ian Thompson, the ACLU’s legislative representative, said an announcement in support of SNDA on the anniversary of the anti-bullying summit would have significant impact.

“An endorsement by the administration on the anniversary of the White House Conference on Bullying Prevention would be a powerful statement from the administration that all students are entitled to an education unhindered by discrimination and harassment,” Thompson said.

Other anti-bullying efforts the administration has undertaken include holding the first-ever federal LGBT youth summit in June and issuing guidance informing schools they may be violation of federal laws protecting students from harassment on the basis of gender by allowing anti-gay bullying. Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and other administration officials have also appeared in “It Gets Better” videos.

Just this week, the Departments of Justice and Education, together with six private plaintiffs and the Anoka-Hennepin School District in Minnesota, came to an agreement on a consent decree to resolve alleged bullying and harassment of students who weren’t conforming to gender stereotypes.

Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, said Obama supports the goals of the SNDA, didn’t offer full-throated support of the bill.

“Without speaking to the specifics of this letter, I would note that the President supports the goals of the Student Non-Discrimination Act,” Inouye said. “As the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is being considered by Congress, we look forward to working with lawmakers to ensure that all students are safe and healthy and can learn in environments free from discrimination, bullying and harassment.”

SNDA is sponsored by gay Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) in the House and Sen. Al Franken in the Senate. The bill has 156 co-sponsors in the House and 37 co-sponsors in the Senate.

The legislation may see action on the Senate floor this year. Franken, who offered then withdrew the bill as an amendment to education reform legislation before the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee, said he’d offer SNDA as an amendment when the Education & Secondary Education Act reauthorization bill comes to the Senate floor. The bill is unlikely to come up as a standalone bill in the Republican-controlled House.

Obama administration officials have been repeatedly asked about whether the administration is ready to support SNDA. During a conference call with reporters Tuesday, Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said in a response to a question from the Washington Blade that having law on the books like the Student Non-Discrimination Act would “certainly be helpful,” but stopped short of endorsing the bill.

“We have had conversations with various stakeholders on the Hill and spoken about that, and are carefully reviewing that particular proposal,” Perez said.

Another piece of legislation pending before Congress, the Safe Schools Improvement Act, or SSIA, also aims to protect LGBT students from bullying. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.) in the House and Sen Bob Casey (D-Pa.) in the Senate, would require schools to adopt anti-bullying codes of conduct and submit to states data to the Department of Education on bullying.

ACLU’s Thompson said SSIA isn’t mentioned in the letter for the sake of having a more clearly stated request to Obama.

“While SSIA and SNDA have complementary goals, the bills do different things,” Thompson said. “Many of the organizations on this letter also support SSIA, but in order to have as clear of an ‘ask’ as possible to the administration, we decided to focus this particular letter on SNDA.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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