Back in Congress: Bills against bullies

Congresswoman Linda T. Sánchez on April 15 re-introduced legislation to address bullying and harassment of LGBT students, among others.

“No student should ever be afraid to come to school because they are being intimidated by bullies,” said Rep. Sánchez. “Every student has the right to a safe and comfortable learning environment. Bullying is violent and destructive behavior and we have to stop treating it as a minor nuisance: it is a serious problem that damages a student’s academic progress, not to mention overall mental health.”

Sánchez’ bill (H.R. 1648) is identical to the one introduced in the Senate by Senators Bob Casey (D-PA) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) on March 8 (S. 506). The Safe Schools Improvement Act (SSIA) would require schools and districts receiving federal funds to implement and report on anti-bullying programs. The programs must specifically address bullying and harassment based on the actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity of students and those with whom they associate, among other attributes.

Under the bill, bullying and harassment would include actions conducted through electronic communication, such as e-mail or instant messages. The measure would also oblige states to report data on incidents of bullying and harassment to the U.S. Department of Education and make the data available to the public.

Both the House and Senate versions of the bills are structured as a set of revisions to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the key federal statute governing primary and secondary education. Schools may use funds authorized by ESEA to implement the requirements of the SSIA.

The version of ESEA implemented by Congress at the behest of President George W. Bush was better known as “No Child Left Behind.” President Obama has said reform of ESEA is one of his highest priorities.

Sánchez also introduced the Safe Schools Improvement Act in the previous two sessions of Congress, and Casey introduced his version in the last one. The previous versions all died in committee.

Although both Sánchez and Casey called their bills “bipartisan,” only two of the House bill’s 70 original cosponsors are Republican: Rep. Todd Russell Platts (Penn.) and Rep. Don Young (Alaska).

Senator Kirk remains the only Republican among the 21 Senate sponsors of the SSIA. There is one Independent, Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.) The bill has gained one additional sponsor since its introduction, Jack Reed (D-R.I.)

Congress is also considering several related bills. Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.), reintroduced on March 10 the Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act, which establishes anti-bullying requirements similar to the SSIA for colleges and universities receiving federal student aid. The bill is named after a gay Rutgers University student who committed suicide in September 2010 after two other students videotaped him making out with another man and broadcast the videos online.

Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) introduced the Student Nondiscrimination Act (SNDA) March 10 in their respective chambers. SNDA states that elementary and secondary schools must not discriminate against students on the basis of real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity in any program or activity receiving federal funds, or they will risk losing those funds. “Discrimination,” under SNDA, includes harassment, bullying, intimidation, and violence based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

Rep. Polis said in an e-mail to supporters on April 7 that he would be trying to attach the SNDA, too, to the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

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