Sen. Al Franken Introduces LGBT Student Protection Bill

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday May 21, 2010

Minnesota Democratic senator Al Franken has introduced a bill that would make anti-gay bullying in schools a federal offense--an important step for GLBT youth, given that the overwhelming majority of gay and lesbian middle and high schoolers are subjected to anti-gay taunts, harassment, and even physical abuse, sometimes by their own teachers.

Even when teachers, administrators, and other school employees are not actively involved in such harassment, all too often they do nothing to intervene when a student who is gay--or perceived as gay--is targeted for abuse by his peers, as happened to a gay freshman named Andy Berlin, according to a May 20 article in the Minneapolis-St. Paul newspaper the Star-Tribune.

"Well, it's not right, but it's high school. It's to be expected," was how Berlin characterized the response of his own high school when he reported the abuse he endured.

Such disinterested attitudes have been met with lawsuits in the past, in extreme cases, and school boards have had to pony up tens of thousands of dollars as a result, a diversion of critically needed funds away from the classroom. But no federal law currently exists that specifically protects young GLBTs. Franken's bill--the Student Non-Discrimination Act, SNDA--would correct that, adding GLBT youth to the demographics that are currently protected by law.

"Our nation's civil rights laws protect our children from bullying due to race, sex, religion, disability and national origin," noted Franken. "My proposal corrects a glaring injustice and extends these protections to our gay and lesbian students who need them just as badly."

Franken's measure has garnered the support of 22 co-sponsors, the article noted, but another Minnesota Democrat, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, was not among them at first. Klobuchar did add her support after being approached by GLBT rights group the Family Equality Council, the article said.

In addition to criminalizing anti-gay harassment and violence at school, the bill provides penalties for schools that do nothing when its students are being bullied. Under the bill's provisions, standing by and doing nothing while GLBT kids are attacked will mean a loss of federal funds. The bill also forbids discrimination by the schools themselves.

The federal bill is similar to one that state lawmakers approved last year, the article noted, only to be vetoed by Minnesota's Republican governor, Tim Pawlenty.

Anti-bullying legislation has also been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives, but another federal lawmaker from Minnesota, Rep. John Kline, is against the House bill. Kline invoked the argument used by anti-gay opponents to hate crimes protections, who claim that such protections would victimize people of faith by turning religiously based anti-gay comments into "thought crimes," even though anti-discrimination laws only punish actions, not opinions or beliefs. "We should do what we can to prevent any student from being bullied," said Kline, going on to add, "But I have serious concerns about any bill that turns our educators into 'thought police' and opens the door to endless lawsuits and litigation against our schools."

A Time for Safe Schools

Safe schools advocates and civil rights groups hailed the senate bill, however. The Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network (GLSEN) issued a May 20 release called Franken's bill "an important step toward ensuring that all students are valued and respected and can learn in an environment free from harassment and discrimination."

"GLSEN thanks Senator Franken and SNDA's 22 Senate cosponsors for making a commitment to ensuring that LGBT students can learn without the fear of being discriminated against simply for who they are," said the group's executive director, Eliza Byard. "SNDA will send a clear message to schools that they must address the hostile environment many LGBT students face in schools."

The release cited research done by GLSEN that indicates that nearly 90% of GLBT youth are subjected to anti-gay harassment while at school, with well over half--61%--saying that they feel "unsafe" even while on school premises. The same research indicated that GLBT students were five times more likely than their heterosexual peers to skip school out of concern for their personal safety.

"It's time that we extend the protections of our nations' civil right laws to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students across the country," said Franken. "No student should be subjected to the ridicule and physical violence that LGBT students so often experience in school. It's time we demanded equal treatment for all of our children under the law."

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) also praised the bill. In a May 20 release, the ACLU said, "The Student Non-Discrimination Act would help to end entrenched biases towards lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students in our education system." The ACLU release cited one recent high-profile case it had undertaken, that of Constance McMillen, a young lesbian in Mississippi, who sued her local school board when she was denied permission to bring her girlfriend to the school's prom as her date.

The school board subsequently canceled the prom, but assured the judge in the case that a private function would be arranged to which McMillen could bring a female date. However, McMillen and a handful of other students--who were reportedly pupil suffering from learning disabilities--were sent to a poorly attended "fake prom," while most of the rest of the students went to a dance hosted at a local country club. McMillen was not invited to the country club function that served as prom for most of her classmates. She subsequently transferred to another school.

The director of the ACLU's Washington Legislative Office, Laura W. Murphy, said, "The Student Non-Discrimination Act is an answer to a persistent problem. As we have seen recently in Constance McMillen's case, LGBT students continue to face harassment and intolerance every day. Under the Student Non-Discrimination Act, McMillen and LGBT students like her would have a federal statute to protect them.

"Our public schools should be a safe harbor for our students, not a place of exclusion and ridicule," continued Murphy. "The Student Non-Discrimination Act will go a long way toward protecting our students and will promote both equality in schools and a safer learning environment. We urge the both the House and Senate to make this bill a priority."

Currently, the only federal law protecting GLBT Americans is the Matthew Shepard Act, which President Obama signed into law last autumn. The bill provides additional funding and support for local investigations deemed to be hate crimes--that is, violent crimes motivated by hatred for gays, lesbians, bisexuals, or transgender people. Such crimes often are extremely violent, and they can affect heterosexual victims who are mistaken for gay by the perpetrators.

State-level protections are a patchwork. Some states have laws on the books to protect GLBTs from being the specified targets of violent crime; others have no such laws. Similarly, violence and harassment targeting GLBT youth, or students who are perceived to be gay, are not consistent from state to state, and state lawmakers have been lobbied by anti-gay groups determined to prevent such protections from becoming law. In Massachusetts, despite such efforts from anti-gay organizations, state lawmakers recently passed anti-bullying legislation that is expected to help protect GLBT students even though it does not specify gay youth as a protected class.

The need for such laws was underscored by nearly a half-dozen tragedies last year in which students as young as 11 killed themselves after being targeted for anti-gay harassment by bullies. Not all of the youths who committed suicide were gay, as was the case with an 11-year-old Springfield, Massachusetts boy named Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, who hung himself n April 6, 2009, after enduring prolonged anti-gay harassment even though he was straight. Hoover's mother had reportedly sought intervention from school officials, to no avail.

Less than three weeks later, another 11-year-old, Jeheem Herrera, a student at a Georgia school, also killed himself after being subjected to anti-gay harassment--bullying he endured even though a state law in Georgia was in place to prevent it. In absence of a federal law providing penalties for ignoring bullying behavior, however, state laws are not always enforceable, and even in states where safe school legislation is on the books, teachers and administrators may lack the training they need to intervene appropriately.

Not all bullying takes place on school grounds. In at least one high profile case in which a Massachusetts student, Phoebe Prince, killed herself after being harassed and bullied, some of the harassment she suffered took the form of online content, such as postings at Facebook or other social media sites.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.