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May 8, 2009

Bill would add LGBT students to federal bullying law

Washington, D.C.--In the wake of the April suicides of two 11-year-old students bullied because they were thought to be gay, a bill was introduced in the U.S. House on May 5 to add sexual orientation and gender identity to an existing law on bullying and harassment.

The Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act, part of 2001�s �No Child Left Behind,� now deals only partly with the problem.

The new measure requires schools and districts that receive federal funds to adopt codes of conduct specifically prohibiting bullying and harassment, including that motivated by sexual orientation or gender identity.

Currently the codes are left to the states and individual districts to write. Most cover harassment for nearly every reason except sexual orientation and gender.

Ohio has no protection for LGBT students. A 2005 law against bullying names several targeted groups, but does not include LGBT students.

The Safe Schools Improvement Act, as the new bill is known, would also require that states report data on bullying and harassment to the Department of Education.

In the 2007 National School Climate Survey conducted by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, nearly three-fifths of LGBT students reported feeling unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation, and more than a third felt unsafe because of their gender identity.

Close to half of LGBT students--44 percent--reported physical harassment and 22 percent reported being assaulted at school in the last year.

The bill is sponsored by Democrats Linda Sanchez of California and Carolyn McCarthy of New York and Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida.

Sanchez and Ros-Lehtinen introduced a similar measure during the last session of congress.

The current bill has 20 co-sponsors including openly gay Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Barney Frank of Massachusetts. Betty Sutton of Akron is the only Ohio co-sponsor.

The National Safe Schools Partnership led by GLSEN, teacher unions, and administrator professional groups recommended the changes to current law in its June 2007 report on bullying titled �Bridging the Gap in Federal Law.�

�It is time we combat outdated and erroneous beliefs that downplay the seriousness of bullying,� said Sanchez. �Bullying is not a harmless �rite of passage� and can no longer be brushed off as child�s play.�

�Unlike child�s play, victims of bullying do not choose to participate, and rather than build character, bullying can cause children to become anxious, fearful, unhappy, and even cause them to be physically sick,� Sanchez continued.

�Schools may not always have the resources to train teachers to spot and prevent harmful bullying and this bill will allow them to use funds for proper training,� said Sanchez. �Three-quarters of all school shooting incidents have been linked to bullying and harassment, and victims of bullying and harassment are more likely to be depressed or suicidal.�

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