April 23, 2012
By Jacob Combs
Last friday, following a screening of Lee Hirsch’s documentary Bully at the White House on GLSEN’s annual Day of Silence, President Obama announced his official endorsement for two bills, the Safe Schools Improvement Act (SSIA) and the Student Non-Discrimination Act (SNDA), which have been proposed in Congress to battle bullying and discrimination in American schools. The White House had previously gone at the record to say that it “supported the goals” of SNDA, but fell short of full endorsement, as the ACLU’s Ian Thompson pointed out in an late March op-ed piece in The Advocate.
The Student Non-Discrimination Act, which is set up similarly to Title IX, the landmark law prohibiting sex discrimination in education, would add sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of classes protected under federal education nondiscrimination law. The Safe Schools Improvement Act would add bullying and harrassment-awareness programs, including ones specifically focused on orientation and gender identity, to the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act.
The Obama administration’s support of SNDA and SSIA have been some time in coming: the two bills were introduced in March 2011 during the White House conference on bullying, but were looked over by a Senate committee when the time came to pass the Elementary and Secondary Education Reauthorization Act of 2011 in October. Having the White House behind the bills will no doubt give them more momentum in the legislature, and will hopefully create an environment in which they might actually pass.
When the Obama administration punted earlier this month on an executive order barring federal contractors from employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, the LGBT community was rightfully upset. That was the wrong choice, and it is right of our community to continue pushing the administration on that issue, and the many other issues that are important to us. Still, Obama’s endorsement of the SSIA and SNDA underscores how important it is to recognize that while President Obama may not be the ally that we want him to be, he is nonetheless a powerful ally.
In a moving and unusual expression of support, the Sioux City Journal of Sioux City, Iowa yesterday devoted its entire front page to an anti-bullying editorial after Kenneth Weishuhn, a gay Iowa high schooler who came out to his peers at school and was rejected by them, took his own life. “In Kenneth’s case, the warnings were everywhere,” the paper wrote in its editorial. “We saw it happen in other communities, now it has hit home. Undoubtedly, it wasn’t the first life lost to bullying here, but we can strive to make it the last.”
It’s time for Congress to take action on this issue, to fight back against what is increasingly beginning to look like an epidemic. With any luck, President Obama’s endorsement will provide the SSIA and the SNDA will more visibility on the national stage. We aren’t powerless against harassment and bullying in our schools. But it will take more advocacy to push past the intransigence of lawmakers who simply do not want to admit there is a problem.