Have State Lawmakers Done Enough to Tackle Anti-LGBT Bullying?

by Joseph Erbentraut

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday May 19, 2011

In the continuing wake of the spate of LGBT youth suicides that garnered international headlines last falls, state Legislatures from coast to coast have taken up measures designed to tackle bullying and harassment in the classroom.

Advocates for strengthened anti-bullying policies have seen a number of successes, but they note it is important that these legislative advances have not necessarily guaranteed a more safe and nurturing environment for queer youth.

LGBT activists in some states have seen protections for students based on their sexual orientation, gender identity and expression removed from anti-bullying bills.

Texas is one of those states. While most of the at least seven bills introduced related to bullying in the current legislative section had originally laid out specific protections for queer youth, the bill which has seen the most success to date-House Bill 1942-does not include them.

The state's House of Representatives approved HB 1942 earlier this month in a 94-41 vote. The measure would update the definition of bullying to include cyber-bullying. HB 1942 would also allow for staff development relating to bullying prevention and interventions, and it would mandate that each school district adopt a bullying policy. HB 1942 will now go on to the state Senate.

While Equality Texas could not be reached for comment for this story, the organization described HB 1942 in a May 4 press release as "the single best opportunity this session for the Texas Legislature to address the problem of bullying, cyber-bullying, and harassment in Texas schools."

Shawn Gaylord, director of public policy for the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, told EDGE his organization favors the passage of comprehensive, fully enumerated anti-bullying measures like those that have become law in New York, Colorado and Arkansas within the past year. According to GLSEN's most recent National School Climate Survey, students attending schools with enumerated LGBT-specific bullying policies did far better than those attending schools with either non-existent or more general policies.

Gaylord added the danger of passing a weaker anti-bullying bill more quickly rather than holding out for a more effective measure is the potential loss of urgency around the issue. He said this tactic could dissuade legislators from returning to the issue and reassessing an existing law. "In Texas, we do think that bill could be stronger," said Gaylord.

That said, Gaylord noted heightened support for strengthened anti-bullying measures. This is due, in part, to increased awareness of the issue because of the It Gets Better project and other high profile initiatives.

That attention has helped people more clearly understand this issue is about basic safety and an ability to obtain an education," added Gaylord.

Brad Clark, executive director of One Colorado, can attest to that understanding. Governor John Hickenlooper signed House Bill 1254 into law on May 13. The measure created a statewide bullying prevention plan and grant program that allows schools to step up their own anti-bullying policies. And it mirrors the state's LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination policy.

Clark said the stories queer youth told legislators-some of which brought them to tears-during hearings on HB 1254 touched him."At the end of the day, their stories are the most compelling, moving and heartbreaking aspect of this," he said, noting HB 1254 passed with bi-partisan support. "I was inspired by the courage they have to be out and the resiliency they displayed. It's apparent to us that, increasingly, these issues are not red or blue and have become fairly mainstream."

Despite increased public support for LGBT-inclusive anti-bullying measures, Jill Marcellus of the Gay-Straight Alliance Network said some challenges remain. These obstacles include lawmakers concerned with the potential financial cost of instituting some reform as well as opposition routed primarily in politics rather than the well-being of youth in schools.

Objections over the cost of some aspects of "Seth's Law," a comprehensive anti-bullying measure a California legislative committee approved last month, led to some minor amendments. These include school districts will only be encouraged--and not required--to publicly post their anti-bullying policies.

Marcellus remains optimistic, however, that the bill will advance in the Legislature.

"This legislation is an important step toward making it better and creating a climate of respect and inclusion for all students," she said. "The bill would give schools and teachers the specific tools they need to prevent and address bullying and would clarify existing law to make sure that schools, students and teachers alike have access to those tools."

Despite the resonance occurring at the state level in many parts of the country, the Student Non-Discrimination Act and the Safe Schools Improvement Act on Capitol Hill have yet to attain anywhere near the number of required co-sponsors for a floor vote in Congress.

Meanwhile, Marcellus said there are other steps schools can and should take to support a safer environment for queer youth. These include the formation of gay-straight alliances.

A study the peer-reviewed Journal of School Health released this made a strong case for an urgent response to bullying. Doctor Stephen T. Russell and Dr. Caitlyn Ryan found a "strong link" between queer youth who are victimized in school and increased mental health issues, more frequent suicide attempts, increased risk for engaging in behaviors leading to sexually-transmitted diseases and HIV.

The researchers concluded that reducing the victimization of queer youth in schools and elsewhere "should be an educational and public health priority."

Joseph covers news, arts and entertainment and lives in Chicago. He is the assistant Chicago editor for The Huffington Post. Log on to www.joe-erbentraut.com to read more of his work.

Comments on Facebook