Al Franken, Randi Weingarten: Many LGBT students live in fear of harassment, abuse. Current civil laws don't protect LGBT youth
They say Congress must include Student Non-Discrimination Act in overhaul of No Child Left Behind Act
Editor’s Note: Al Franken represents Minnesota in the U.S Senate and is a member of the Senate Education Committee. Randi Weingarten is president of the 1.6 million member American Federation of Teachers.
When Kyrstin Schuette, a Minnesotan, and her girlfriend started dating during freshman year in high school, none of the other students — with the exception of a few close friends — knew about their relationship.
But that all changed on a school trip when another student found out and spread the word. Immediately, the harassment began.
Kyrstin’s property was vandalized, and students called her names and pushed her around in the hallway. Several times, Kyrstin was threatened and told she should kill herself and that the world would be a better place without her.
Kyrstin started skipping school. She was bullied on social media. She reported the torment to her teachers and the principal. Their response? Sadly, but not unexpectedly: Keep your head down and don’t be so open about your sexual orientation.
After two years enduring the bullying, shortly after her 18th birthday, Kyrstin attempted suicide. While recovering, she met other LGBT youth who also faced relentless harassment simply for who they are. Eventually, she finished her education online, became an advocate in the LGBT community, and even helped out with Franken’s Senate campaign.
Kyrstin made it, but not every LGBT kid does. In May, after facing years of bullying at schools in Wyoming and California, 16-year-old Adam Kizer took his own life. His family has spoken openly about the bisexual teen’s struggle with depression and post-traumatic stress. Like many LGBT students, Adam felt there was nowhere for him to go.
It’s our responsibility as adults to protect all children. And we know that a significant number of young people across the country are being bullied for their sexual orientation or gender identity. In fact, according to the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, more than 30% of LGBT kids report missing a day of school in the previous month because they felt unsafe.
On top of that, 25% of LGBT students have been physically hurt by another student because of their sexual orientation, 55% of transgender students report physical attacks based on their gender identity or gender expression, and 28% of LGBT youth drop out of school because of harassment.
These are staggering statistics, and they underscore two important things. First, it’s nearly impossible for a student to learn if he or she is afraid to go to school. And second, we need to take action.
Current civil rights laws protect children from bullying due to race, sex, religion, disability, and national origin. What’s missing? The same rights for LGBT kids. Inexcusably, there is still no federal law that explicitly prohibits the bullying of kids based on real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. That’s wrong, and it’s long past time we do something about it.
This week, Congress is taking up a comprehensive bill to overhaul the No Child Left Behind Act, the major federal education law. As the Senate debates the bill, we’re going to fight to include a measure Franken has been working on for years to establish statutory protections against discrimination in public schools based on a student’s actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.
The Student Non-Discrimination Act would forbid schools from discriminating against LGBT students or ignoring harassing behavior. It says that a school has to listen — and do something — when a parent says “my child isn’t safe” or a student bravely reports problems.
Every day, LGBT students are subjected to harassment, bullying, intimidation and violence. Many are afraid to go to school, and even when they do, they are often more focused on their personal safety and mental well-being than on their studies. I, Randi Weingarten, remember so well being scared to death to come out when I was a teenager. I wish the measure Franken is proposing now was on the books back then. I was lucky. I navigated the loneliness and the fear. Others are not so lucky.
Over the past few years we’ve made great strides toward equality for LGBT Americans. Just two weeks ago, the U.S. Supreme Court announced the landmark ruling that same-sex couples have the right to marry in all 50 states. Despite this huge victory, we need to keep fighting.
In America, it is illegal to bully a child because of his or her race, ethnicity or disability. Let’s extend those protections to our LGBT students, who are among the most bullied. Not only is it commonsense — it’s the right thing to do.