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Education Department holds first ever LGBT youth summit aimed at safer schools

Wednesday, June 8, 2011
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The U.S. Department of Education on Monday kicked off the first-ever LGBT youth summit, a two-day event on “Creating and Maintaining Safe and Supportive Environments for LGBT Youth.”

Kathleen Sebelius (left), and Arne Duncan

The event in Washington D.C. — hosted by the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools — brought together students, educators, administrators, and heads of federal and non-profit agencies to provide information and seek solutions to issues affecting LGBT youth, including: violence, bullying, anxiety and depression, substance abuse, sexual risk-taking and running away from home.

More than 50 LGBT youth also attended the summit, and were given opportunities to share personal experiences, and participate in problem solving activities.

In her opening remarks, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius said “we know that too often the needs of LGBT people, particularly young people – are not met. At least not as well as they should be.” From her prepared remarks:

On Wednesday I met with a young man named Caleb Laieski. Caleb shared with me the story of his being bullied in school. He experienced many of the same things that boys and girls of every age and sexuality experience in school. Taunting, name-calling, being pushed and shoved, and just being ignored. All because of his perceived sexuality. When he was a freshman in high school, an older boy threatened to stab Caleb. He complained to his school and they did nothing. A few months later, the same bully drove his car onto the sidewalk where Caleb and his friends were standing.

Caleb Laieski

That was the last straw for Caleb, shortly after that he dropped out of high school and got his GED.

Still for others, the outcome can be much worse. While meeting with Caleb, he told me about a close friend who committed suicide after being tormented at school just because of who she was or who people thought she was.

No young person should feel like the only way to stop being bullied is to take their own life. And no teen should feel like they have to leave school and compromise their whole future because of the cruel actions of others. As a mother, it breaks my heart. And it stiffens my spine.

But what makes Caleb’s story special is what he did next. Caleb first worked with his own school district to change its policies around bullying and harassment by including clear protections for LGBT students in the student handbook. Then he sent a letter to every school district in Arizona asking them to do the same thing. Since then he’s gone to his state Legislature in support of a bill to stop bullying of all kinds in Arizona schools.

And now Caleb has decided to come here to Washington and spend a month advocating and educating Members of Congress and the Administration to support the Student Non-Discrimination Act, a bill that would prohibit discrimination against public school students on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Caleb told me he’s here to speak for LGBT youth who can’t speak for themselves. Caleb is actually with us here today. Caleb would you stand and be recognized…

Caleb, and young people like him, should not have to stand alone. That’s why this President and his administration have continued finding ways to help LGBT youth live free of violence and thrive in every stage of their lives. This is especially true at HHS where this kind of work is vital to our mission.

[ LGBTQ Nation recently profiled Caleb Laieski, the article is here. ]

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan addressed the summit on Tuesday, and highlighted the administration’s commitment to ensuring equal access to education for LGBT students as it does for all students, and reaffirmed the federal government’s support of allowing Gay-Straight Alliances (GSA) to form under the Equal Access Act.

Previously, on October 26, the Administration issued guidance to support educators in combating bullying in schools by clarifying when student bullying may violate federal education anti-discrimination laws.

And in March, Obama held the first White House Conference on Bullying Prevention.

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