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Bullying back in focus: New bills in Congress, Obama hosts conference on prevention

Bullying back in focus: New bills in Congress, Obama hosts conference on prevention

Members of Congress are introducing a flurry of bills this week designed to address bullying and harassment of students, including LGBT students, and timed to coincide with a major White House conference on bullying prevention on Thursday.

And President Obama and the First Lady, in preparation for Thursday’s event, posted a video March 9 to the Facebook page, reaffirming their commitment to addressing the issue. Bullying “affects every single young person in our country,” the president said. “Putting a stop to bullying is a responsibility we all share.”

Bills aimed at doing that died in committee last session, however. And one LGBT leader worries that the anti-bullying legislation does not go far enough to provide effective protections.

The Safe Schools Improvement Act (SSIA) introduced March 8 by Senators Bob Casey (D-PA) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) would require schools and districts receiving federal funds to implement and report on anti-bullying programs. The programs must specifically include bullying and harassment based on the actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity of students and those with whom they associate, among other attributes.

Bullying and harassment under the Casey-Kirk bill would include actions conducted through electronic communication, such as e-mail or instant messages. The bill would also oblige states to report data on incidents of bullying and harassment to the U.S. Department of Education and make the data available to the public.

During a press call Tuesday, Casey noted that LGBT students, and those perceived to be, are among the most frequent targets of bullies. The recent media attention surrounding several cases of LGBT-related bullying, he said, has made bullying “much more of a national issue” and is one of the reasons people in Washington have paid more attention to bullying in general.

Casey called the SSIA “a strong and bipartisan bill designed to ensure that no child is afraid to go to school for fear of being bullied.”

But, so far, Kirk is the only Republican among the 20 original sponsors of the SSIA. There is one Independent, Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.) When the bill died in committee last session, it had 18 sponsors, also all Democrats except for Kirk and Sanders.

A spokesperson for U.S. Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-CA) said she will soon introduce a House version of the bill, as she did last session.

And Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.), plan to reintroduce on March 10 the Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act, which establishes similar anti-bullying requirements for colleges and universities receiving federal student aid. The bill is named after a gay Rutgers University student who committed suicide in September 2010 after two other students videotaped him making out with another man and broadcast the videos online.

Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) will also introduce the Student Nondiscrimination Act (SNDA) March 10 in their respective chambers, according to spokespeople from their offices. SNDA states that elementary and secondary schools must not discriminate against students on the basis of real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity in any program or activity receiving federal funds, or they will risk losing those funds. “Discrimination,” under SNDA, includes harassment, bullying, intimidation, and violence based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

A federal law could help students even though states have been passing their own anti-bullying laws, said Kara Suffredini, executive director of Mass Equality, the leading LGBT advocacy organization in Massachusetts. The SSIA, she said, goes further than most state laws in providing a specific enforcement mechanism—the withholding of funds. It also goes further than most states, including Massachusetts, in its reporting requirements and in prohibiting bullying based upon specific, enumerated characteristics, such as sexual orientation and gender identity.

A 2007 survey of students by GLSEN found that, where school policies enumerated bullying based on sexual orientation, students were more likely to report problems to staff and staff were more likely to help.

And, in Romer v. Evans, a landmark 1996 U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down Colorado’s anti-gay Amendment 2, the high court noted, “Enumeration is the essential device used to make the duty not to discriminate concrete and to provide guidance for those who must comply.”

But enumeration has been a stumbling block in passing anti-bullying legislation in several states. A Texas House committee recently removed enumerated categories from an anti-bullying bill in an effort to mollify those who say enumeration creates special rights for people in the listed groups. And competing bills—enumerated and not—were reintroduced into the Michigan legislature this year after legislators failed last session to resolve whether to include enumerated categories.

Steven Goldstein, chair of Garden State Equality, New Jersey’s leading LGBT advocacy group, cautions that, while enumeration of sexual orientation and gender identity is absolutely necessary, it is not sufficient for truly effective anti-bullying protections. Goldstein helped lead the fight for New Jersey’s Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights, the country’s most sweeping anti-bullying law, enacted in January 2011.

He said that, while he supports the SSIA, it does not go far enough in “specifying what [state] policies should be,” such as “what the deadlines should be for reporting and resolving an incident of school bullying.” The New Jersey law, in contrast, requires bullying incidents to be reported by teachers, investigated, and resolved within specific timeframes.

The SSIA and SNDA’s likelihood of passage remains unclear. Casey said he is not sure yet whether the SSIA will progress as an independent piece of legislation or attached to a larger bill, such as the reauthorization of Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the key federal statute governing primary and secondary education. And a spokesperson for Rep. Polis said last session that the Congressman hoped SNDA would also become part of ESEA, but that he would push for it as a standalone bill if necessary.

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