Spirited, But Not Yet Safe

Senate committee fails to include either of two anti-bullying bills supported by LGBT advocates in education bill that proceeded through committee on Spirit Day

On Oct. 20, many parts of Facebook and Twitter turned purple, as individuals, organizations, companies and even the White House changed their profile pictures and websites to present purple-hued pictures and logos as part of Spirit Day.

The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation describes it as a day in which ”[m]illions of Americans wear purple … as a sign of support for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth and to speak out against bullying.”

Al Franken

Al Franken

That same day, however, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) announced that the committee voted to pass the Elementary and Secondary Education Reauthorization Act of 2011 out of committee – a vote that had bipartisan support but did not contain either of two anti-bullying bills pushed by LGBT advocates.

Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network Executive Director Eliza Byard released a statement that she was ”disappointed that the Senate HELP Committee did not include the Student Non-Discrimination Act or key language from the Safe Schools Improvement Act in ESEA Reauthorization.”

The SSIA, co-introduced by Sens. Bob Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), would amend the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act to include bullying- and harassment-prevention programs, including ones based on sexual orientation or gender identity. The SNDA, introduced by Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and modeled after Title IX, would add sexual orientation and gender identity to federal education nondiscrimination law.

Justine Sessions, a spokeswoman for Harkin, told Metro Weekly, ”Both SNDA and Safe Schools were discussed as amendments and withdrawn.”

Speaking during the mark-up session, Franken said, ”[M]y understanding is that some members of the committee point to this amendment as a ‘poison pill.’ They think that if we considered it in mark-up today, the whole [ESEA reauthorization bill] would lose bipartisan support.”

Saying that he didn’t want the SNDA ”to tank the whole [ESEA reauthorization] bill at this time” in committee, he withdrew the SNDA – but only after noting, ”I’d like to make clear to everyone watching that it is my strong belief that if it did come up for a vote, it would not only win, it would win with bipartisan support.”

Casey spokeswoman April Mellody said Casey had similar concerns, writing, ”[Casey] offered an amendment to add [enumerated anti-bullying] protections, but made the difficult decision to withdraw his amendment before it came up for a vote. Pennsylvania teachers, principals, and parents have been asking for a new law to replace No Child Left Behind since he arrived in the Senate and he felt he could not jeopardize the bipartisan Committee vote to pass ESEA out of Committee.”

Franken said Oct. 20 that he planned to bring the amendment up when the reauthorization bill goes before the full Senate, calling it ”Chairman Harkin’s recommendation” – and adding, ”I will oppose any unanimous consent request to consider other amendments and not this one.”

That promised opposition could be relevant because, without unanimous consent, debate on the bill would require 60 votes to proceed. Regardless, though, any amendments offered on the floor could require 60 votes to ensure inclusion in the final bill.

Casey’s spokeswoman likewise told Metro Weekly, ”[Casey] has informed the Chairman that he intends to offer his amendment again when the full Senate considers ESEA, but this time he will put it up for a vote.”

The promise of future action didn’t satisfy Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese, who said in an Oct. 20 statement, ”We are disappointed that the Committee did not adopt anti-LGBT bullying amendments that enjoyed bipartisan, majority support. This major reauthorization bill was the best opportunity the Senate will have in this Congress to address the problem of bullying faced by LGBT students.”

Byard concurred, saying, ”This was a critical missed opportunity to demonstrate federal leadership on an urgent issue. GLSEN will continue to work with our legislative champions to ensure that the safety of our youth in school will eventually get a vote in the Senate.

In a statement, Harkin said, “Like any major piece of legislation, this bill is not perfect, but it is an important step forward for America’s children. I will continue to work with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle and education experts to build on this strong foundation and improve this bill when it is considered by the Full Senate.”

Solmonese, however, said, ”It is imperative that the Committee revisit this issue and acknowledge the consequences bullying has on the youth in our community.”

Although the White House Facebook page was purple for Spirit Day, President Obama has not specifically endorsed either the SNDA or SSIA. The White House has, however, generally supported efforts to end ”discrimination, bullying and harassment” of students.

Asked Oct. 19 if the White House had asked Harkin to include either bill in the legislation, White House spokesman Shin Inouye replied by writing only, ”We appreciate Chairman Harkin’s efforts on reauthorization and we will continue to work with him and other members of the Committee to make improvements to the legislation.”

After the committee did not vote on either amendment, Inouye told Metro Weekly Oct. 21, ”The President has consistently said that he believes that we should take steps to ensure that all students are safe and healthy and that they can learn in environments free from discrimination, bullying and harassment. This issue was addressed in the ESEA blueprint that the Department of Education previously released. As Congress moves forward on the reauthorization, we look forward to working with lawmakers to make improvements to the legislation.”

Inouye did not respond specifically as to whether the president believes the inclusion of either the SNDA or the SSIA are necessary for the ESEA reauthorization to receive the president’s support. Additionally, neither the SSIA nor the SNDA were specifically included in the ”blueprint” to which Inouye referred.

The administration has been consistently supportive of the inclusion of anti-bullying measures in the ESEA reauthorization but vague about its view on the specifics of that inclusion. A year ago, October 2010, Inouye told Metro Weekly, ”Next year when the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is being considered, we look forward to working with Congress to ensure that all students are safe and healthy and can learn in environments free from discrimination, harassment, and intimidation; that students have access to adults who engage them and care about their success, and to supports that promote their learning and well-being.”

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