Legislation that was intended to prevent discrimination and harassment of LGBTQ students in public schools failed to pass in the Senate this month, despite bipartisan support. Similar legislation introduced in state legislatures in recent years has suffered the same fate.
The Student Non-Discrimination Act, originally introduced by Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) as a standalone bill, would have prohibited public school students from discrimination on basis of their “actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity or that of their associates.”
The bill, which was first introduced by Franken in 2011, is modeled after Title IX of the Education Amendments, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex.
LGBTQ youth experience bullying and harassment at much higher rates than non-LGBTQ youth and are twice as likely to experience verbal harassment, exclusion, and physical attacks at school, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
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Franken introduced the legislation as an amendment to the Gifted and Talented Students Education Act, which would reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. During a speech on the Senate floor Franken said that the amendment was not simply about teasing or “playground behavior,” but that it was about preventing discrimination.
“If a gay child is relentlessly harassed by his classmates, if a principal tells a girl that she can’t go to her senior prom because she wants to bring another girl as her date, or if a school just stands by as teachers, students, and other administrators refer to a transgender child as not he or she but ‘it’—there is no law that was written to protect those children,” Franken said. “Our laws fail those children. And that is just wrong. But we can change that.”
The amendment did not receive the 60 votes necessary for adoption and failed in a 52-45 vote, with seven Republicans joining Democrats voting in favor of the legislation.
“The inability to put in place meaningful protections for some of our most vulnerable children is an enormous disservice to LGBT students all across the country who face terrible bullying every day,” Franken said, reported the Washington Blade. “Right now, there are federal laws on the books to protect kids against discrimination or harassment based on things like gender, race, national origin, and disability. My measure simply would have extended those protections to LGBT kids.”
Ian Thompson, the legislative representative of the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement that it was disappointing that lawmakers failed to protect LGBT students from discrimination, but the bipartisan support of the legislation was encouraging.
“The fight for explicit protection for LGBT students under federal law will continue,” Thompson said. “In the meantime, the Departments of Education and Justice must continue to use their existing legal authority to protect LGBT students from discrimination and harassment.”
Reducing the occurrence of bullying and harassment in public schools has been a priority over the past decade for state lawmakers. Since 2006, 49 states have enacted some type of legislation aimed at preventing bullying and protecting students, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The legislation introduced and laws enacted have varied widely in scope and focus. A handful of other bills have been introduced this year in state legislatures that address bullying or harassment in schools, but most of these bills focus on cyberbullying and not on bullying or harassment of LGBTQ students.
Washington state Sen. Marko Liias (D-Lynnwood) introduced SB 5526, which would require public schools to incorporate a model transgender student policy and procedure created by the state school directors’ association and to share the policy with parents or guardians, students, volunteers, and school employees.
Since being appointed to the state senate last year, Liias has made legislation that focuses on bullying in the LGBTQ community one of his top priorities. SB 5526 did not pass during the state’s regular legislative session, but has been introduced during all three of the special legislative sessions and is currently pending.
In Hawaii, Rep. Roy Takumi (D-Pearl City) introduced HB 819, which would require state and county agencies that serve youth to adopt bullying prevention policies and establish a task force to assist the governor with bullying prevention policies in the state. Alison Gill, the senior legislative counsel for the Human Rights Campaign, said in written committee testimony that the bill would protect the safety and well being of all young people in Hawaii, including LGBTQ youth.
“Bullying and harassment has become a serious public health crisis in our nation’s schools,” Gill said. “Nationally, 65 percent of teens have been verbally or physically harassed or assaulted based on a characteristic that makes them different from some of their peers, like their race, religion, or gender, and 65 percent of junior high school teachers report that bullying and harassment is a serious problem in their school. In Hawaii in 2013, nearly 19 percent of students reported being bullied on school property and more than 15 percent reported experiencing cyberbullying.”
Versions of the bill were passed by both the state house and senate, but a conference committee was unable to reconcile differences in the bills before the legislature adjourned.
Iowa Sen. Rob Hogg (D-Cedar Rapids) introduced legislation to provide for training for school personnel, establish a bullying and violence prevention student mentoring pilot program, and provide for a school climate and bullying work group. SF 345 was part of Gov. Terry Branstad’s comprehensive anti-bullying agenda.
“Every child in Iowa deserves to go to school in a safe and respectful learning environment,” Branstad said, reported the Iowa Statesman. “The passage of SF 345 will give schools the tools they need to prevent bullying. I’m hopeful that the bill will receive support in the Iowa House and come to my desk for final approval.”
While the bill was passed by a wide margin in the Democratic-controlled senate, it failed to gain traction in the Republican-majority house.