Newly bipartisan rights commission to hear testimony on bullying

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is scheduled to hold a briefing today on bullying and “peer-to-peer” violence in K-12 public schools. Specifically, the commission will concentrate on students targeted due to their race, national origin, religion, disability, gender or LGBT status and on what the appropriate federal response should be going forward, with a focus on student needs, programs and the enforcement efforts of the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice.

Testimony from the briefing — which is open to the public and will be held at the Washington Marriott at Metro Center in Washington, D.C., this Friday at 9 a.m. – will inform the commission’s eventual report, to be issued in September.

The briefing comes two weeks after the Obama administration held a closed meeting between transgender-rights lobbyists and the Office of Public Engagement, according to the Washington Blade. A White House spokesperson told the Blade that this meeting, where transgender issues were the sole focus of discussion, was the first of its kind for the OPE.

The National Center for Transgender Equality, which had representation at the meeting, has frequently praised the Obama administration for hearing out the LGBT community’s issues and concerns, including recent proposals concerning housing, health and labor policies and their relation to the LGBT community.

Friday’s hearing comes in the wake of other initiatives by the Obama administration in calling attention to in-school bullying. As TPMMuckracker recently reported, the Commission on Civil Rights has renewed bipartisan balance, which in part explains the federal agency’s new direction, the upcoming bullying briefing among the new changes.

From TPMMuckracker:

The commission is supposed to be bipartisan — the law stipulates that no more than four commissioners can be of any one party. But during Bush’s first term, two Republican commissioners switched their affiliation to independent to allow for the appointment of two additional Republican commissioners, which a Republican appointee later acknowledged was a move to “game” the system. One of those commissioners subsequently left the commission and the other, current Vice Chair Abigail Thernstrom, later switched her registration back to Republican, but subsequent appointments meant the commission remained GOP-leaning until this year.

Recently, Democratic commissioner Michael Yaki was reappointed to the commission for another term, finalizing the commission’s makeup: four Democrats, two Republicans and two independents. Democrat Roberta Achtenberg told TPMMuckracker that she’s “very interested in taking the commission in a new direction,” one that focuses on an ”affirmative, pro-active civil liberties, civil rights agenda.”

With more media attention on teenage suicides this past year, more and more states have begun introducing anti-bullying legislation that puts emphasis on bullying motivated by gender and orientation discrimination, though some states are moving faster than others at changing their school policies. Arkansas recently updated its anti-bullying policy by passing a law that requires school districts to enact anti-bullying policies that take electronic forums such as Facebook into consideration, while in Minnesota, the GOP recently killed an amendment within the K-12 education budget bill that would strengthen the state’s anti-bullying laws.

On a federal level, Sen. Robert Casey (D-Pa.) in March reintroduced the Safe Schools Improvement Act of 2011, which would amend the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 to take action to prevent bullying and harassment of students. The bill, which currently has 22 co-sponsors is expected to be reintroduced in the House soon.

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