StudentsFirst rescinds anti-gay lawmaker’s award in response to gay youth’s plea

Marcel Neergard

Marcel Neergard

Following weeks of mounting pressure from LGBT advocacy groups, it was an online campaign initiated by an 11-year-old gay student that finally compelled the education lobbying group StudentsFirst to rescind it’s “Education Reformer of the Year” designation awarded to Tenn. state Rep. John Ragan, a proponent of the state’s infamous “Don’t Say Gay” bill.

Marcel Neergard

Marcel Neergard, 11, from Oak Ridge, Tenn., launched a petition and online campaign last week, calling on the group to take back Ragan’s award, saying the bill he sponsored in the state House made him and other kids like him, “feel unaccepted.”

Marcel was severely bullied in fifth grade due to his sexual orientation, and contemplated taking his own life. (Watch Marcel’s pleas here and here.)

Ragan — who has previously compared homosexuality to pedophilia, prostitution, and murder — was a sponsor of the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, and proposed that educators be required to refer gay students for psychiatric care.

On Wednesday, StudentsFirst announced it was rescinding Ragan’s honor, and that it would be endorsing anti-bullying legislation:

Marcel Neergaard is not alone. He and his family decided they would home-school this year, afraid of what would happen to the 11-year-old boy if he continued to be bullied at school for being openly gay. He’s a brave boy and is showing tremendous courage by sharing his story.

There are students and families both in his state, Tennessee, and across the country in similar situations, concerned about whether their kids’ schools are safe environments. I have two daughters of my own and worry every day about whether they are learning in a nurturing and secure environment…

Regardless of when Representative Ragan was named a “Reformer of the Year” by our organization, his introduction of ill-conceived and harmful legislation including HB 1332 — which would have cultivated a culture of bullying — does not represent the type of leadership we look for in our legislative champions. We have made that clear to Rep. Ragan and rescinded the recognition.

Simply put, we must hold our “Reformers of the Year” to a higher standard. So let me be very clear — policies that are intended to single out any student based on their sexual orientation and treat them differently are wrong.

Last year, StudentsFirst — founded by Michelle Rhee, a former chancellor of the Washington, D.C. public schools — hailed Ragan for always voting “to do right by kids when it comes to education.”

The group said it was unaware of Ragan’s anti-LGBT voting record when it gave him the award in August 2012. For months, StudentsFirst declined to rescind the award, even after it scrubbed its website of a glowing tribute to Ragan that encouraged supporters to send him donations.

Meanwhile, Marcel is celebrating the victory.

“Three days. It didn’t even take a week to change StudentFirst’s mind,” said Marcel. “I’m pretty proud. I want to make sure to thank all the people who signed my petition, because without them, it would not have been possible.”

“I can’t believe the way in which Marcel’s story changed so many minds, beyond just StudentsFirst,” added Marcel’s father Mike. “We heard from people talking about what it was like to be bullied as an 11 year-old. It was an honor to have Marcel inspire so many people to share their stories.”

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