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Arizona teen lobbies Congress for support of Student Non-Discrimination Act

Wednesday, May 18, 2011
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An Arizona teen who started his anti-bullying activism when he was forced to drop out of high school at the age of 16, has taken his cause to Washington to lobby Congress to make schools a safer environment for LGBT youth.

© Brody Levesque, for LGBTQ Nation

Caleb Laieski

Caleb Laieski, 16, of Surprise, Ariz., is in the nation’s capital this month, hoping to convince legislators to support and pass the Student Non-Discrimination Act, a bill that would prohibit discrimination in public schools based on actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.

For Caleb, seeing this bill passed is personal.

Caleb said he was repeatedly threatened with violence and death threats because he is gay — threats that were ignored by teachers and school administrators.

And he lost a close friend who committed suicide after being gay bashed.

Caleb, who has now received his G.E.D., brought the fight to his school district last year, starting with a legal notification that he would bring a lawsuit to protect himself and others who were harassed by bullies.

After the school district agreed to change its policies, he sent a similar notice to every school district in Arizona, contacting more than 5,000 school administrators, city council members and state lawmakers, demanding improved measures to fight discrimination.

In March, Caleb attended the White House’s first ever Conference on Bullying Prevention, which inspired him to advocate at the federal level, “for those who are afraid to speak up.”

Now, Caleb is back in Washington, working the phones, knocking on doors, and becoming a familiar face on Capitol Hill as he lobbies for support for the SNDA — the House version, HB 998, currently has 132 co-sponsors; the Senate version, SB 555, has 31 co-sponsors.

In his first week in D.C., Caleb met with Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), the bill’s chief sponsor in the House, Rep. Charles Gonzalez (D-Texas), Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), and more than 30 congressional staffers.

He said he plans to keep up that pace for the remaining weeks he is in Washington, hoping to persuade more legislators to co-sponsor for the bills. This week, he is scheduled to meet with Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn), the bill’s sponsor in the Senate.

His goal, once Congress returns from its recess, is to move the House version of the bill from the Committee on Education and the Workforce, where it’s currently assigned, to the House floor for a vote.

The Senate version is currently assigned to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.

Caleb said the bills are necessary in “guaranteeing all students a safe place.”

He points to statistics that nearly 9 out of 10 LGBT youth (86.2%) reported being harassed at school in the past year because of their sexual orientation, and 3 out of 5 LGBT youth (60.8%) felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation, according to GLSEN.

Caleb, who funded his trip through donations and local and internet fundraising, is on his own agenda, preferring for now to go it alone rather than follow the agenda of national, mainstream LGBT advocacy groups.

He said he realizes many in Congress are not friendly towards legislation that includes sexual orientation and gender identity language — even though the bill does not require any appropriations or have any impact on the federal budget to be implemented — but noted that his personal story connects with people, because it puts a name and face to the issue.

“People have more influence here than organizations,” Caleb told LGBTQ Nation, hoping to inspire more people to get involved.

“Every student deserves the right to an education and a safe place to learn,” he said.

“I’m only 16, and I am here fighting for this — anybody can do this.”

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