Today, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) released the Strengthening America’s Schools Act of 2013, which is an amendment to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that includes a variety of reforms designed to make American schools safer and more effective institutions. The bill has provisions to expand resources and establish guidelines for kindergarten and early childhood education, encourage equity by assessing individual school’s climates and opportunities, and support high quality instruction.
In addition, the bill includes Sen. Al Franken’s (D-MN) Student Non-Discrimination Act, SNDA, which follows the introduction of the bill into the House of Representatives by Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) in April. The act is focused on preventing harassment, discrimination, and violence in the public school system targeted at LGBT youth.
SNDA argues that the current state of harassment and violence deprives actual and perceived LGBT students of their right to equal education, in part because discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity is not federally prohibited in public schools. Thus, the act would add sexual orientation and gender identity to the existing list of federally protected bases of discrimination alongside race, color, sex, religion, disability, and national origin. This measure would allow the federal government to withdraw funding from schools that condoned such discrimination in secondary schools as well as empower students to take legal action against perpetrators of harassment.
SNDA currently has 150 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives, 149 of whom are Democrats. The sole Republican co-sponsor, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL), has been attacked in the past for pro-equality stances, including her vote for the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and opposition to the Defense of Marriage Act.
For students across the United States, passage of the Student Non-Discrimination Act is a matter of physical safety. According to a survey by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, 6 out of 10 lesbian, gay, or bisexual students report feeling unsafe at school, with an even higher 8 out of 10 for transgender students. SDNA notes the seriousness of the problem by citing studies and cases in which bullying of LGBT students led to lower grade point averages, absenteeism, health problems, failure to graduate, life-threatening violence, and suicide.
In spite of these grim day-to-day realities for LGBT youth in public schools, Neal McCluskey of the Cato Institute worries that passage of this measure would lead to “a violation of those kids who want to express opposition to LGBT opinions or behavior.”