On Friday, President Obama officially endorsed two crucial pieces of legislation currently pending in Congress — the Student Non-Discrimination Act (SNDA) and the Safe Schools Improvement Act (SSIA). The bills are aimed at improving the climate in our nation’s schools, especially for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students.
SNDA would outlaw discrimination in K-12 public schools on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity/expression. And the bipartisan SSIA would require schools to undertake affirmative efforts to prevent bullying and harassment in schools, including conduct based on a victim’s sexual orientation and gender identity. These bills are essential — a 2009 study by GLSEN (the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network) found that nearly 9 out of 10 LGBT students experienced harassment in schools.
Here at the National Women’s Law Center, we have been working actively with our coalition partners to advance SNDA and SSIA. Just last month, NWLC was among a group of seventy LGBT, civil rights, education, labor, and faith groups that sent a letter to President Obama urging him to publicly support and endorse SNDA. And he did!
The Administration’s announcement of its support of SDNA and SSIA was timed to coincide with a screening of the new documentary film “Bully” at the White House. I was lucky enough to attend the screening, where Lee Hirsch, the director, and many of the students and families featured in the film spoke poignantly about bullying and harassment in schools, and urged audience members to work to eradicate it.
Valerie Jarrett, senior advisor to President Obama, and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan also addressed the crowd. Jarrett described her experience watching the film with her mother, and provided an overview of the ways in which the Obama Administration has been working to end bullying and harassment in our nation’s schools — for instance, the Departments of Justice and Education reaching a landmark settlement with the Anoka-Hennepin School District in Minnesota under Title IX regarding pervasive bullying and harassment of students who failed to conform to gender stereotypes. (A version of Jarrett’s remarks can be found on the White House blog.) And Secretary Duncan — who has been vocal in his opposition to bullying — referenced the Department of Education’s 2010 guidance on bullying and harassment in schools, which helps clarify schools’ legal obligations to respond to and prevent bullying and harassment.
SDNA and SSIA are necessary to ensure that all students are able to learn in an environment free from harassment, bullying, and fear. I applaud the Obama Administration for using its — pardon the expression — bully pulpit to bring attention to the issue and its support to these bills.