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GLSEN: The Path to Safe Schools

18 Nov

The LGBT bullying epidemic has only recently become a national issue largely due to the string of youth suicides that have spread across the county.  New PSA campaigns have sprung up all over the place and several celebrities and politicians have spoken out about the need to end bullying and discrimination in our school communities. Naming the problem is easy yet little attention is paid to the legislation pending in Congress that will directly affect the lives of bullied youths.

The Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, GLSEN, held an event on Capitol Hill today to discuss the background of safe schools legislation and to make an impassioned pitch for the passage of the Safe Schools Improvement Act and the Student Non-Discrimination Act.

The Student Non-Discrimination Act, which would provide protections to students against harassment based on sexual orientation or gender identity, was introduced in the House of Representatives by Jared Polis (D-Co) and in the Senate by Al Franken (D-MN).  Both spoke today about the need to create safe spaces in schools:

“No student should have to dread going to school because they fear being bullied. With the spate of recent suicides in Minnesota that were linked to anti-LGBT bullying, it’s clear we need to do more to ensure schools provide a safe environment for all students” Sen. Al Franken

“Every student has the right to an education free from bullying, harassment, and violence, and we are here today to show that Congress is ready to take a stand against bullying in our schools”  Rep. Jared Polis

Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) and Rep. Linda Sanchez sponsored the Safe Schools Improvement Act, which is a federal anti-bullying bill which protects students from all backgrounds, including sexual orientation and gender identity.

“We shouldn’t have to have this legislation,” said Sen. Casey “We owe it to our children to do whatever we can to ensure their pleas for help do not go unheard.”

Two mothers of dead bullying victims shared their stories and spoke of the devastation school bullying had wrecked on their families.  Tammy Aaberg, who’s 15-year-old son completed suicide, spoke of her attempts to get the school district to listen and address the problem, and shared her frustration and loss when her complaints were ignored.

Sirdeaner Walker, who lost her 11 year old son last year, issued a call to action:

“Too many of our children are being tormented in schools-and not enough of our adults are doing the right thing and teaching respect for all. Enough is enough! Teachers, parents, clergy, and community members must stand together and make change. We all know the problems and we know the solution that can make a difference all that remains is to act.”

Perhaps the most touching moment of the event came from Joey Kemmerling, who spoke of his personal experiences being bullied, his struggle to cope and thoughts of suicide, and how it caused him to do something about it:

“I came out in 8th grade, and I’ve been bullied every day.” said Kemmerling. “The day is going to come for everyone standing up and saying ‘no more’.”

Louis Van Amstel, from Dancing with the Stars, and singer Clay Aiken, spoke to the crowd of their experiences with bullying and how they made it through.

Its clear, both from the personal testimonials heard today and the overwhelming recent anecdotal evidence, that the legislation proposed is absolutely necessary for our children.  GLSEN Executive Director Eliza Byard addressed the need for their passage:

“Our nation has failed to address the pervasive problem of bullying and harassment in schools for far too long. Countless youth are denied access to an education every day because they do not feel safe in school. Passing the Safe Schools Improvement Act and the Student Non-Discrimination Act would go a long way toward laying the necessary foundation of support lacking in many American schools”

It is considered highly unlikely that either of these bills can pass in the current lame-duck session, but Byard and the sponsoring lawmakers are confident it can be passed in the next year.

“We have hope that these bills will move.  They currently have bi-partisan support in this Congress.” said Byard, who goes on to add that “Fundamentally this is an issue of behavior, not belief”

Today’s event was a call to action for all who recognize the importance of this issue and has clearly laid out the path to creating safe schools.  We need to keep the pressure on our communities and school leaders to deal with these issues while pressuring Congressional leaders to pass this much-needed legislation.