Boulder Rep. Jared Polis led the drafting and circulation of a letter urging the U.S. Department of Education to do everything in its power to end bullying and harassment against LGBT students in the nation’s schools Tuesday — the same day Sen. Cory Gardner voted against a measure designed to put anti-bullying protections into law.
Polis and 64 other Democrats praised work the Department has already done to clarify that Title IX protections apply to discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, improve data collection on bullying and affirm students’ right to form gay-straight alliances. But the letter called on the Department to go a step further by providing schools with comprehensive guidance that clearly outlines their obligation to protect LGBT students under Title IX.
The letter referenced a recent school-climate survey conducted by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network to illustrate the problem. Around three quarters of LGBT students reported verbal harassment in school, more than a third said they were physically assaulted and nearly half were bullied over the Internet. The letter also points out that “students who experience bullying and harassment are more likely to suffer from depression, low self-esteem and other mental health problems. Further, they are less likely to attain a high GPA or move on to post-secondary education.”
Read the full letter here.
Polis, who is gay, introduced legislation earlier this year to federally ban discrimination in schools based on actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. The Student Non-Discrimination Act (SNDA) is similar to the protections afforded by Title IX, but gives victims an avenue for legal recourse. Public schools that would violate the law would stand to lose funding.
The Republican controlled House hasn’t taken up Polis’ bill, but Sen. Al Franken’s companion version was up for vote in the Senate Tuesday. Franken has pushed it as a standalone bill every session for the past five years, but to no avail. So this time around he tried tacking it onto the Every Child Achieves Act — a massive bipartisan piece of legislation designed to fix No Child Left Behind.
The amendment needed 60 votes to get included in the larger bill. It fell short by 8.
Junior Senator from Colorado, Cory Gardner, was among the naysayers. His press office didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Colorado is one of thirteen states with anti-bullying and non-discrimination laws that fully include LGBT students. And yet anti-LGBT bullying persists even here.
This spring, the senior class valedictorian of Twin Peaks Charter Academy in Longmont was denied the opportunity to speak at graduation because he planned on coming out as gay in his speech. Principal BJ Bachmann read a draft of the speech ahead of time, outed Evan to his parents by phone and attributed barring the speech to Evan’s “bad character.”
Rep. Polis was highly critical of the whole ordeal, calling for a third-party review and for the school board to fire its attorney. Twin Peaks Principal BJ Bachmann has since moved to another school district in Weld County with its own slew of discrimination allegations.
That story was highly publicized, but Rep. Polis acknowledged that other such stories of discrimination in school are vastly underreported. He said he’s aware of situations where students don’t seek help from teachers or administrators because they fear it will only lead to more harassment. And LGBT students elsewhere in the country don’t have nearly the same protections that Colorado provides.
That’s why Polis is pushing for legislation in addition to the protections that already exist under Title IX. “We need to make sure there’s federal recourse and right of action for victims […] What’s important for LGBT youth is that they can attend school in a safe environment, free from discrimination and harassment,” he said.
Correction July 7, 2015: The initial article stated that Polis signed onto the letter to the U.S. Department of Education. He actually led the drafting and circulation of the letter.