The U.S. Department of Education announced today (Oct. 5) the awarding of $38.8 million in grants to 11 states from a new Safe and Supportive School program. The timing comes just days after a media blitz about the suicides of five teenagers, at least four of whom were bullied for being gay or being perceived as gay. But anybody who knows Washington knows Tuesday’s grants weren’t made in reaction to the recent news.
“It would be inaccurate to say we’re doing this as a response to recent events,” said Kevin Jennings, Assistant Deputy Secretary for the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools (OSDFS) at the U.S. Department of Education.
Jennings, the nation’s top official for promoting safe schools, said the latest string of teen suicides driven by anti-gay bullying is, sadly, not a new trend.
“The problem of greater rates of suicide among LGBT youth being linked to school bullying is something that has been documented and known for a very long time,” said Jennings.
Jennings has some experience in the matter. As a teenager, he himself attempted suicide and had been the subject of relentless bullying in middle school and early high school. He founded the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) in 1990 to help promote safe and respectful climates for LGBT youth in schools. And the week in April 2009 when the Obama administration offered him the position as head of OSDFS, news broke about the bullying-related suicide of 11-year-old Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover of Springfield, Massachusetts, who had been the subject of anti-gay taunts. That news, he said, inspired him to take the job.
Jennings, in an interview, said Education Secretary Arne Duncan has also been long aware that “bullying and harassment are first and foremost an education issue,” because he understands kids will not want to be in school if they are bullied and harassed.
Jennings points to Duncan’s hiring of him for the safe schools position as proof of the Secretary’s commitment, and notes that Duncan met with GLSEN student leaders even before that.
Duncan also released a statement October 1 in response to the news of the recent suicides. But Jennings notes that he and Duncan have been prioritizing efforts to prevent bullying since they each took office.
The Safe and Supportive Schools grants announced this week are to “measure school safety” and “to help intervene in those schools with the greatest safety needs.” The eleven states chosen to receive this initial round of grants are: Arizona, California, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, South Carolina, Tennessee, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.
The grants require the selected states to implement in-depth surveys of students, family, and staff about school safety issues and “direct grant monies to the schools that the students say have the biggest problems,” and to the problems the students identify as the largest, said Jennings. Directing funds based on student feedback, he noted, is a new approach to school safety, of which bullying is a subset.
“This is a major step forward,” said Jennings, “ . . . because the only people who really know what’s going on in the schools are the kids.”
The program requires a four-year commitment by the states to survey schools, direct money to solving the problems, resurvey, and make the survey results public.
For fiscal year 2011, OSDFS has asked for $165 million in order to expand the program to additional states.
Last August, OSDFS convened the department’s first-ever Bullying Prevention Summit, with government leaders from several departments, including Secretary Duncan, who gave the keynote. Also attending were Surgeon General Regina Benjamin and 150 community leaders from around the country. Jennings said that, while many people and organizations have been working on bullying for years, “Never had they all been in the same room before.”
“We brought together everybody—from GLSEN to the Christian Educators Association,” said Jennings.
During his keynote, Secretary Duncan said it was “an absolute travesty of our educational system” when students worry about being bullied at school “or suffer discrimination and taunts because of their ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, disability, or a host of other reasons.”
Summit attendees heard “incredibly disturbing reports” about the bullying of Muslim students and students with disabilities, among other things, said Jennings.
The next step will be to develop a plan based on the issues raised at the Summit. A federal task force, with representatives from multiple offices within the Departments of Justice, Health and Human Services (HHS), Agriculture, Defense, and Interior is meeting every two weeks. A larger group, including non-governmental leaders, meets once a month.
Jennings would not give a date for when a plan will be ready. He said he wants to make sure it is “very detailed and very specific” and that “everybody’s on board.” And he said the department would hold a second summit next year.
“We are committed to a multi-year effort on this.”
One near-term action will come from the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR). Secretary Duncan explained in his keynote that OCR would be “issuing policy guidance to schools” to explain that bullying can include racial, sexual, or disability harassment that is prohibited by civil rights laws. It would also outline the legal responsibilities schools have “to protect students from discriminatory harassment.”
Russlyn Ali, Assistant Secretary for OCR, noted in her speech at the Summit that this includes sexual harassment “when students don’t conform to traditional gender roles.”
A spokesperson for the department said they hope to issue the guidance “in the next few months.”
The approach is similar to that taken by the U.S. Justice Department, which intervened in January in the case of a New York teen who was bullied and physically hurt for being effeminate. Justice Department lawyers argued that Title IX, which prohibits gender-based discrimination, also applied to gender expression. In an out-of-court settlement, the school district agreed to pay the boy $50,000, legal fees, and the cost of therapy.
Jennings said the OSDFS has also pulled together the many disparate resources the government has on bullying into a new consolidated Web site, Bullyinginfo.org, which the office launched in August.
It has also worked with the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), part of HHS, on a Stop Bullying Now campaign initially aimed at middle school students. The Education Department provided additional funding to expand the campaign to elementary schools. (The “What Adults Can Do” section of the site—stopbullyingnow.hrsa.gov—includes a page on anti-gay bullying.)
Jennings notes, however, that there is no federal law on bullying and “no specific protections for students based on sexual orientation and gender identity.” As part of the executive branch, he says, “we are given authority to address issues by Congress, so at this point, we’re trying to find, in the absence of a national bullying law, what constructive steps we can take.”
There are bills in Congress, however, that would provide such laws. The Student Nondiscrimination Act (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 Safe Schools Improvement Act (SSIA) would require schools that receive federal funds to implement and report on anti-bullying programs that include bullying based on a student’ actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity, among other attributes. Versions of both bills are still pending committee action in the House and Senate. They would need to be reintroduced if they are not passed before the end of the current session of Congress.
Federal departments and their employees are prohibited by law from lobbying Congress about specific legislation, however, so the Department of Education cannot move the legislation forward.
On the state and local levels, Jennings said, the department can provide “guidance and resources,” such as the Summit and the Safe and Supportive Schools grants. But state and local entities, he said, are “the guiding force in American education,” because “ninety-two cents of every dollar spent on K through 12 education in America comes from state and local taxes.”
The department is “trying to provide some leadership,” Jennings said, but adds, “Anybody who thinks the U.S. Department of Education singlehandedly is going to end the bullying crisis is deeply misguided. We have a very important role to play, but we cannot do this without state and local departments of education, without community-based organizations, without the clergy, without individual citizens, without parents, without kids themselves, also stepping up and showing leadership.”