President Obama has thrown the full weight of the administration behind a pair of bills that would help protect LGBT students against bullying: the Student Non-Discrimination and the Safe Schools Improvement Act.
Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, confirmed for the Washington Blade on Friday that Obama supports both pieces legislation — bringing him into alignment with a position that many LGBT organizations had sought for some time.
“He is proud to support the Student Non-Discrimination Act, introduced by Senator Franken and Congressman Polis, and the Safe Schools Improvement Act, introduced by Senator Casey and Congresswoman Linda Sanchez. These bills will help ensure that all students are safe and healthy and can learn in environments free from discrimination, bullying and harassment.”
Both pieces of legislation address bullying in different ways. SNDA would prohibit and harassment in public elementary and secondary schools based on a student’s actual or perceived LGBT status. SSIA would require schools to adopt anti-bullying codes of conduct and submit to states data to the Department of Education on bullying.
Obama endorses the legislation as his administration has taken flak from the LGBT community for saying it won’t issue at this time an executive order requiring federal contractors to have non-discrimination policies based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
On the same day the endorsement was announced, the White House was set to host a screening of “Bully,” a 2011 documentary about school bullying that follows the lives of five students who were bullied on a daily basis.
The screening takes place on the “National Day of Silence” on which students take a day-long vow of silence representative of the silencing of LGBT students and their supporters.
On the movie, Inouye said, “Today, the White House Office of Public Engagement is holding a screening of the documentary ‘Bully’ at the White House with bullying prevention advocates from a wide range of communities.”
LGBT groups commended the Obama for expressing explicit support for legislation aimed to help students who face bullying.
Eliza Byard, executive director of the Gay & Lesbian Straight Education Network, called the announcement “a vital show of support” to students across the country “of all identities, backgrounds and beliefs who face bullying and harassment in school.”
“By speaking out on GLSEN’s Day of Silence in support of these two critical bills, the president has given greater hope to students who often feel that they have nowhere to turn,” Byard said. “It is deeply moving to know that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students who face the multiple threats of harassment, violence and discrimination have the president as an ally in their efforts to win all of the protections that they deserve.”
Ian Thompson, the ACLU’s legislative representative, said White House support for SNDA is s “key to getting this necessary legislation passed into law.”
“Our public schools should be a safe harbor for our youth, not a place of exclusion and ridicule,” Thompson said. “By passing the Student Non-Discrimination Act, Congress can have a profound and very real impact in improving the lives of LGBT students. It’s time to make passage of this bill a priority.”
Hayley Gorenberg, deputy legal director of Lambda Legal, said the president’s support represents “a big step toward a safer and healthier environment in every public school.”
“At Lambda Legal, we’ve encountered extraordinary cases of violence and discrimination against LGBT young people in schools – and sometimes against the allies who try to support them,” Gorenberg said. “Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students have long been at a significant disadvantage without specific protection under federal law. All students have a right to a safe learning environment, and this law will leave no doubt as to public schools’ responsibility to provide it.”
The endorsement comes as possible Senate votes on the anti-bullying bills could take place later this year. Education reform legislation known as Elementary & Secondary Education Act reauthorization was reported out of committee without the LGBT-specific anti-bullying provisions. Sens. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Bob Casey (D-Pa.) have pledged to bring up their bills as amendments when the larger education reform bill reaches the floor.
Praise for Obama came from Franken, who said support from the president would help advance SNDA.
“There’s a lot of talk right now about the need for a law to protect our children from anti-gay bullying and discrimination,” Franken said. “My Student Non-Discrimination Act would protect LGBT children from bullying in the same way that children are already protected from bullying because of their race, gender, disability, and religion. With today’s endorsement from the White House and 37 cosponsors in the Senate, we’re that much closer to getting a law in place that will protect our children.”
Groups had been calling on Obama to endorse anti-bullying legislation. In a letter dated March 7, a group of 70 organizations — including the Human Rights Campaign, the ACLU, Lambda Legal and the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network — to place the full support of his administration behind SNDA.
Administration officials, such as Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, have previously said the administration supports “the goals” of SNDA, but have stopped short of endorsing the bill.
Earlier in the day, Education Secretary Arne Duncan ducked a question on whether the Obama administration was prepared to endorse SNDA.