Middle school and high school can be brutal for anyone who does not fit the mold of whatever it means to be “cool.” But, it can be particularly rough for students who are questioning their sexuality or coming out as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT). And, today youth are coming out at younger and younger ages. In addition to realizing their lives don’t quite match the fairytales they grew up with or heteronormative media messages that surround them, these students often attend schools that openly discriminate against them based on their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity and choose to ignore the harassment they face from their peers.

Federal civil rights statutes expressly prohibit discrimination in education based on race, color, national origin, sex, and disability. However, these laws do not explicitly cover sexual orientation or gender identity. Even though the Department of Education says that Title IX should protect students from discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation, because the law does not explicitly protect LGBT students, these students and their parents often have limited legal recourse when their schools ignore discrimination (including bullying and harassment) based on LGBT (or suspected LGBT) status.

The Senate has the opportunity to fix that. Late yesterday, Senator Franken (D-Minn.) began speaking on the Senate floor about the Student Non-Discrimination Act (SNDA), which he is introducing as an amendment to S. 1177, a bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

By establishing a federal prohibition against discrimination in K-12 public schools based on actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity, SNDA would ensure that LGBT students have the right to learn in a safe environment free from discrimination, harassment, bullying, intimidation, and violence. Modeled after Title IX, SNDA threatens schools that fail to protect their LGBT students with loss of federal funding as well as a judicial remedy for victims.

Why We Need SNDA

I know what you’re thinking: marriage equality is now the law of the land. Isn’t LGBT bullying a thing of the past? I wish that it was, but the numbers and policies on the ground tell a different story. For one thing, schools still make their students jump through extra hoops to form gay-straight alliances or prevent their formation altogether. They censor LGBT-friendly webpages and keep LGBT athletes off of sports teams. At least one school has even canceled prom to prevent two girls from attending together.

According to a 2014 survey, 74 percent of LGBT students reported being bullied based on their sexual orientation and 55 percent report harassment based on gender identity. Nearly one-third of those students missed at least one day of school in the month preceding the survey, because they felt unsafe or uncomfortable in the classroom.

Only 16 states and Washington D.C. explicitly protect LGBT students from bullying and harassment based on sexual orientation and gender identity. And, only six of those states extend the protections to students who experience harassment because they have LGBT friends or parents. Research suggests that nearly half of transgender kids have seriously considered suicide, while LGB students are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their non-LGB peers.

Research also suggests that schools may discriminate against LGBT students with disproportionate discipline policies. LGB students—particularly non-heterosexual girls—are expelled and referred to the juvenile justice system at disproportionately high rates. Gender-nonconforming students and LGBT students of color are also pushed out of school by excessive discipline policies.

Against this backdrop, there is no question that we need SNDA.

SNDA Fits in ESEA and has Broad Support

ESEA, which was first enacted in 1965, was a major civil rights bill intended to ensure that all students have access to a high-quality education. SNDA would extend ESEA’s promise to LGBT students by making sure schools can’t sit on their hands while LGBT students are treated differently and pushed out of the classroom.

And, it’s not just LGBT groups and civil rights groups that support the amendment. Educators and mental health professionals are also on board. The National Association of Secondary School Principals, American Federation of Teachers, National Education Association, Teach for America, American School Counselor Association, and the National Association of School Psychologists all support SNDA.

What’s Next?

We’ll be watching C-SPAN and will update this blog after the vote. Stay tuned!

Update 7/14/15, 6:00 pm:  Unfortunately, this evening, Senator Franken’s SNDA amendment failed by a vote of 52 to 45.  There was a 60 vote threshold for the amendment, so even though a *majority* of the Senate supported the language, it still didn’t make it into the Senate bill.  But the fight’s not over. We and our allies will continue pushing for SNDA, whether as part of ESEA or on its own. It is simply too important to too many kids’ lives.