Education reform: Will it tackle LGBT-based bullying?

The Obama administration’s proposal to reform the nation’s educational system includes no specific call for anti-bullying programs in schools, and no mention of protections for students from harassment or discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. This is despite the fact that an openly gay man with considerable experience in combating such bullying heads the Department of Education (DOE) Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools.

Kevin Jennings
Kevin Jennings

It doesn’t always pay off to have a seat at the table.

Case in point: The Obama administration’s proposal to reform the nation’s educational system includes no specific call for anti-bullying programs in schools, and no mention of protections for students from harassment or discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. This is despite the fact that an openly gay man with considerable experience in combating such bullying heads the Department of Education (DOE) Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools. And it comes despite having a push by the authors of two bills that would give schools strong incentives to enact LGBT-inclusive anti-bullying measures for similar language in any educational reform bill.

Several bullying-related suicides in the past year have brought the issue of school bullying into a prominent media spotlight. Victims in the first three months of 2010 include 15-year-old Phoebe Prince of Massachusetts, 12-year-old Kimberly Linczeski of Michigan, and 13-year-old Jon Carmichael of Texas. And nearly two-thirds of middle and high school students report being harassed or assaulted during the past year, according to the most recent report (2005) commissioned by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN).

LGBT students are particularly vulnerable. A 2007 survey by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education found that high school students who identified as LGBT were almost five times more likely to attempt suicide than others. And in two high-profile cases just last year, two children committed suicide after being subjected to bullying based on the perception of other students that they were gay. Both children were 11 years old: Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover of Massachusetts and Jaheem Herrera of Georgia.

According to GLSEN, the vast majority of LGBT students surveyed (86 percent) said they experience harassment at school because of their sexual orientation, and most (61 percent) said they feel unsafe because of their sexual orientation.

Transgender students face even higher levels of harassment, a 2009 GLSEN study found.

President Obama last month released a 41-page “Blueprint for Reform” of the nation’s educational system –a reform he hopes can begin when Congress reauthorizes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, better known as “No Child Left Behind.” The “Blueprint” includes one mention of bullying –in the context of discussing a proposed new “Successful, Safe, and Healthy Students” program to replace the existing “Safe and Drug Free Schools” program. Under the existing program, about $191 million is divided up among the states; but under the new program, schools, districts, and their community-based “partners” can compete for grants to address issues specific to making schools safe and healthy for students. It will require schools to assess needs for safe school program funding through surveys of students, parents, and teachers, among others.

Both the current and proposed incarnations of the safe schools program come under the purview of DOE’s Assistant Deputy Secretary Kevin Jennings. Jennings, head of DOE’s Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools, is a former teacher who co-founded GLSEN to help promote safe and healthy environments in schools for LGBT youth. His appointment in July of last year was both hailed by the LGBT community and criticized by right-wing opponents who claimed he would promote a “homosexual agenda.”

A spokesperson for Jennings said he has a “hectic schedule” and “will not be able to accommodate” a request for an interview “at this time.” The office did not respond to subsequent requests for responses to questions by e-mail.

Spokespeople for GLSEN and the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) say they have been among more than 100 groups of all types that have attended open forums sponsored by Jennings’ Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools to discuss the proposed new program. They say they have also offered advice to the office about the program.

Ellen Kahn, director of the HRC Family Project, says the plans for a survey to assess school needs concerning successful, safe, and healthy students will include the physical environment of the school, respect for diversity, wellness, harassment, and more. At one place on the survey, Kahn says, students will be able to indicate whether they are experiencing bullying or harassment based on any of several factors, including sexual orientation and gender.

“There’s a real interest in including all kinds of voices and getting input from experts and a real respect for people who are in the field,” said Kahn.

Two pending House bills, however, want more.

The Safe Schools Improvement Act (SSIA) introduced by Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.) last May, seeks to require schools that receive any federal funds to implement and report on anti-bullying programs. The bill, HR 2262, would define bullying as hostile conduct that is directed at a student based on his or her actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity, among other attributes.

The Sánchez bill has 101 cosponsors (including four Republicans) and is structured as a set of revisions to the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act. The Act is a part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), better known as “No Child Left Behind.” No Child Left Behind was the major educational policy implemented by Congress at the behest of President George W. Bush and it is the policy that President Obama’s “Blueprint” seeks to reform.

The second bill currently pending in Congress is the Student Nondiscrimination Act (SNDA), introduced by openly gay Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.). HR 4530 seeks to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in any program or activity receiving federal funds. It includes “harassment” in its definition of discrimination and has 82 co-sponsors (including one Republican). A spokesperson for Rep. Polis said the Congressman hopes the bill will also become part of ESEA, but will push for it as a standalone bill if necessary.

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) will be introducing a Senate companion bill to SNDA in the coming weeks, his office said.

The provisions of these bills are not mentioned in President Obama’s “Blueprint,” and there is no indication yet as to whether the provisions will be included in the larger educational reform bill that Congress will eventually consider.

Part II: The Obama administration has shown signs that it takes bullying—including bullying based on sexual orientation and gender identity—more seriously than its predecessors. So, how important is it that LGBT-related bullying be enumerated in the president’s reform legislation?

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