A Department of Silence: Bullying of LGBT youth not a priority
Second of two parts (Part I)
From the beginning of the Obama administration, the general attitude of the LGBT people was that things would be better for the community than they were under the administration of President George W. Bush.
But even from the beginning, there were signs that protections for LGBT youth might not be better and that “safe schools” might not be a priority for the Department of Education (DOE).
Several federal departments under President Obama have made moves to benefit the LGBT community, but the Department of Education has done little. This is despite growing evidence that LGBT youth are among those most at risk and that safe-schools programs benefit all students, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.
Many in the LGBT community cheered when President Obama appointed Kevin Jennings, the openly gay founder of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) to head the DOE’s Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools. Before he took office in July 2009, however, his department’s budget had already been slashed by more than 40 percent — from $690 million in the last year of the Bush administration to $393 million under President Obama. The budget request for 2011 is only slightly higher, at $410 million.
The money will be used to fund a new “Successful, Safe, and Healthy Students” program to replace the existing “Safe and Drug Free Schools” program. Schools will compete for grants under the program by completing an assessment of students, staff, and parents. Grants can be used to address problems such as the physical environment, wellness, respect for diversity, and bullying.
But bullying is only one possible component of the program. The DOE has done little else to promote efforts to address the problem of school safety—much less the high incidence of bullying based on real or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity—as a priority.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan did meet with GLSEN executive director Eliza Byard and a delegation of students and teachers in March 2009. And in that meeting, he “affirmed a commitment to make schools safe for every student, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity/expression,” according to a GLSEN press release. But DOE did not issue a press release of its own, even though it regularly does so when the Secretary or other senior officials meet with organizations or community groups.
The DOE also displayed winning entries from GLSEN’s “No Name-Calling Week Creative Expression Contest” in the lobby of its headquarters for a month.
However, no DOE officials testified in a July 2009 House committee hearing on “Strengthening School Safety through Prevention of Bullying.”
At the hearing, two expert witnesses—Kenneth Trump, President of National School Safety and Security Services, and Scott Poland, Coordinator of the Office of Suicide and Violence Prevention at Nova Southeastern University—each called for strong school safety components, including anti-bullying measures, to be included in this year’s reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). ESEA, better known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB), was the major educational policy enacted by Congress under the direction of President George W. Bush.
A bill introduced in May 2009 by Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.) would provide such anti-bullying measures. Known as the Safe Schools Improvement Act (SSIA), it would require schools that receive federal funds to implement and report on anti-bullying programs. It would define bullying as hostile conduct based on someone’s actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity, among other attributes. The SSIA is structured to be a set of revisions to the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act, which is part of NCLB.
Sirdeaner Walker, mother of Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, an 11-year-old Massachusetts boy who committed suicide in 2009 after relentless bullying about his perceived gay sexual orientation, testified at the July hearing and called on Congress to move the SSIA forward.
A number of organizations also contributed written testimony in support of the SSIA. They included GLSEN, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Action Fund, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the Family Equality Council, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, COLAGE, and Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) as well as several non-LGBT organizations, including Girl Scouts of the USA, the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the National Federation of Teachers, and the American Association of University Women.
A spokesman for GLSEN, Daryl Presgraves, said in an interview that the SSIA is “our biggest priority right now on a federal level.”
But when President Obama released his “Blueprint for Reform” of NCLB, through a DOE document that details the administration’s proposal, it contained no mention of the provisions of the SSIA. It also included no mention of the Student Nondiscrimination Act (SNDA), a bill introduced by Rep. Polis in January 2010. SNDA would prohibit discrimination—including harassment—on the basis of real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity in any program or activity receiving federal funds.
The DOE has also been silent about the several high-profile bullying-related student suicides since President Obama took office. And the administration did not issue any remarks of support for Jennings when right-wing groups attacked his appointment, suggesting he supported pedophilia and claiming he would promote a “homosexual agenda” in the nation’s classrooms.
Jennings himself has given no interviews to the LGBT media since taking office. A spokeswoman for the DOE Office of Communications and Outreach, Jo Ann Webb, declined repeated requests for interviews with Jennings either in person, by phone, or email. According to Webb, Jennings has a schedule that is too “hectic” to accommodate an interview.
A comprehensive federal law to promote safe schools for every student, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, would provide a level of uniformity that current state and local laws do not offer. Only 12 states plus the District of Columbia have safe-school laws that specifically cover sexual orientation and gender identity. Other states cover only sexual orientation or do not enumerate specific categories of coverage. Some have only non-discrimination laws that may or may not include schools.
The Massachusetts House and Senate each passed anti-bullying bills in March, having sped up the process after the widely publicized suicide of 15-year-old Phoebe Prince in January. Prince, who had moved to Massachusetts from Ireland with her family, was repeatedly bullied by a number of classmates. Six of those students now face felony charges and three others have been charged as youthful offenders.
But neither version of the Massachusetts bill enumerates sexual orientation, gender identity, or other attributes on which bullying may be based. The same is true for bills pending in both houses of the Michigan legislature.
A 2007 survey of students conducted by GLSEN found that students were more likely to report harassment problems to staff—and staff were more likely to help—in schools or states with policies that enumerate categories, than in those with policies that do not enumerate the categories.
And in Romer v. Evans, a landmark 1996 U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down Colorado’s anti-gay Amendment 2, the high court noted, “Enumeration is the essential device used to make the duty not to discriminate concrete and to provide guidance for those who must comply.”
Both the SSIA and SNDA bills would provide enumerated coverage and federal clout to ensure compliance.
Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) will soon introduce a Senate companion bill to SNDA. During an April 20 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on oversight of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, Franken asked Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division, “Do we need an explicit ban against discrimination in public schools based on sexual orientation or gender identity?”
Perez didn’t answer the question. He replied, “I would be happy to work with you on the underlying issue of ensuring that everybody going to school can have the reality of a learning environment that’s nurturing, non-discriminatory, and non-threatening.”
Despite the absence of safe-schools provisions in the President’s proposal, GLSEN spokesman Presgraves said he is optimistic.
“Obviously, this is just a blueprint,” he explained. “As the ‘Blueprint’ will continue to expand and become the actual language for the reauthorization, at that point is when we’ll definitely do everything we can to ensure that [the Sánchez and Polis bills’] language are part of the reauthorization.”
HRC’s chief legislative counsel Brian Moulton agreed.
“Certainly, would it be preferable for there to be a strong, explicit signal going into this process from the White House? Sure,” he said. “But I don’t know that we should see this as a problem right out the gate.”
Moulton added that HRC is working with GLSEN and Rep. Polis’ office to build cosponsors for both bills and “to look for the potential to include one or both of these bills as part of that larger reauthorization bill,” but added, “I’m not sure what those next steps will be because I’m not sure we know what the timeline on the reauthorization is.”
Moulton also suggested the bills could face “competing interests.”
“We are obviously very organizationally focused on getting ENDA through and the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repeal effort,” said Moulton. “The window between now and the midterms [elections for Congress] keeps getting smaller and smaller, unfortunately. I’m not sure that right now there’s an immediate path to moving either” the Sánchez or Polis bills. But he said HRC can “continue to be able to use them as a tool to talk to Congressional offices about the issue.”
“As with any of our issues, it is a heavy lift politically,” said Moulton, “and I don’t know what the prospects are. . . . It is very much a question of when will we have the opportunity to move things on the Hill and how much we can get the community activated once these opportunities present themselves.”