US Dept of Ed; Schools and Communities Around the Country Work to Strengthen Initiatives Against Bullying

The U.S. Department of Education and individual school districts around the country are taking action to proactively address bullying in response to concerns that not enough is being done, as highlighted by the epidemic of recent suicides caused in part by peer bullying. The Department of Education today addressed teachers’ responsibilities in combating the problem, and informed them that bullying based on sex discrimination and gender nonconformity is often a direct federal violation under Title IX. According to the Advocate, Russlynn Ali, the department’s assistant secretary for the Office of Civil Rights, sent a letter on this subject to about 15,000 school districts around the country, including universities. The letter highlights the different forms of harassment and the obligations of the school in its investigations and responses, and also addresses the specific bullying of LGBT students. “The fact that the harassment includes anti-LGBT comments or is partly based on the target’s actual or perceived sexual orientation does not relieve a school of its obligation under Title IX to investigate and remedy overlapping sexual harassment or gender-based harassment,” she writes. The letter clarifies and offers important new guidelines for educators, and indicates the penalties for not abiding by them. Metro Weekly reports that a spokesperson in yesterday’s conference call said that this was the first time the Office “articulated and clarified responsibilities educators have to protect GLBT folks” regarding gender-based stereotyping and harassment. Ali also told the publication that the Education Department supports both the Safe Schools Improvement Act and the Student Non-Discrimination Act—two important pieces of legislation pending in Congress that would mandate more comprehensive and inclusive policies in schools that receive federal funding. Individual school districts have also taken steps to revise their own statutes. Lawmakers in New Jersey yesterday revealed a bipartisan effort to pass an “Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights,” which the Star Ledger calls “the toughest anti-bullying law in the nation.” It would require training for nearly all school employees to identify, report, and prevent harassment, and would also develop a committee to review complaints, led by a specialist in anti-bullying. After reflecting on past laws that did not adequately protect students, Senator Diane Allen, one of the bill’s sponsors, declared “This one’s going to make a big, big difference.” The measure has been in the making for about a year, but comes at a pivotal time—about a month after the suicide of Tyler Clementi at Rutgers University. Additionally in New Jersey just yesterday, middle and high schools in Secaucus kicked off their own campaign to stop bullying. In the Anoka-Hennepin School District in Minnesota, where suicide victim Justin Aaberg had attended high school before his death in July, board administrators voted unanimously yesterday to modify their anti-bullying and harassment policies to list each protected classification. The district is the largest in the state, and seven other students have also died by suicide there since last year. Advocates are pushing for even further change, especially of the “neutrality policy” which prohibits discussions about LGBT issues in district schools. Furthermore, researchers and advocates spoke at the University of Minnesota about suicide prevention, while Minneapolis state Senators Scott Dibble and Jim Davnie are encouraging a new bill that will ensure prevention of all categories of bullying, including sexual orientation. Even states known to have strong anti-bullying laws are taking action. According to a recent article by the Florida Independent, its state’s "Jeffrey Johnston Stand Up for All Students Act" is one of the most well-received bullying laws in the nation—but advocates say it is still not enough, after the initial version of the law removed specific protections for LGBT people. Equality Florida and Safe Schools South Florida have both been working since to confront the issues affecting LGBT-identified and perceived students. The Detroit Free Press published an article profiling several states, including Michigan, Georgia, and New Hampshire, and comparing the advancement of their anti-bullying policies. Finally, parents, students, and organizations are coming together in conferences and community forums around the country to discuss anti-bullying efforts on a more personal level. Last night, several GLAAD staff members attended an inspirational panel called “Bullying: A National Crisis,” hosted by the New York Times. The event included a keynote address by Sirdeaner Walker--the mother of Carl Joseph Walker Hoover, an 11-year-old suicide victim--and a screening of the movie “Bullycides.” It also contained a passionate discussion between several important panelists, including the executive directors of GLSEN and the Trevor Project, and an engaging question and answer period with the audience. GLAAD applauds these various initiatives and the fair coverage that media has given them. We will continue to monitor and report on these efforts to eliminate anti-gay bullying.