Metro Weekly

BREAKING: White House Endorses Safe Schools Bill and Student Non-Discrimination Act

The White House today announced that President Obama is endorsing the Safe Schools Improvement Act (SSIA) and Student Non-Discrimination Act (SNDA), two bills pending in Congress to address bullying and discrimination faced by students across the nation.

obama-bullying.jpgWhite House spokesman Shin Inouye tells Metro Weekly, “The President and his Administration have taken many steps to address the issue of bullying. He is proud to support the Student Non-Discrimination Act, introduced by Senator Franken and Congressman Polis, and the Safe Schools Improvement Act, introduced by Senator Casey and Congresswoman Linda Sanchez.  These bills will help ensure that all students are safe and healthy and can learn in environments free from discrimination, bullying and harassment.”

The SSIA 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, modeled after Title IX, would add sexual orientation and gender identity to federal education nondiscrimination law.

[UPDATE @ 6:25P: White House senior advisor Valerie Jarrett, in a blog post, noted today’s news, writing, “Recently, I watched the movie BULLY with my mom.  We were both deeply moved by the film and the stories it tells of students, families, and communities impacted by bullying.”

She went on to note the administration’s work to address bullying thus far, then added, “We also hope that Congress will take action to ensure that all students are safe and healthy and can learn in environments free from discrimination, bullying, and harassment by passing the Student Non-Discrimination Act (SNDA) and the Safe Schools Improvement Act (SSIA). These pieces of legislation are critically important to addressing bullying in our schools and safeguarding our most vulnerable students.”]

The news comes, Inouye wrote, as “the White House Office of Public Engagement is holding a screening of the documentary Bully at the White House with bullying prevention advocates from a wide range of communities.”

More than a year ago, the president held the first White House conference dedicated to discussing bullying prevention and sharing ideas and strategies for combating the problem.

Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network executive director Eliza Byard said in a statement, “Today’s announcement is a vital show of support to students everywhere of all identities, backgrounds and beliefs who face bullying and harassment in school,” said Byard. “By speaking out on GLSEN’s Day of Silence in support of these two critical bills, the President has given greater hope to students who often feel that they have nowhere to turn. It is deeply moving to know that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students who face the multiple threats of harassment, violence and discrimination have the President as an ally in their efforts to win all of the protections that they deserve.”

Before today, Inouye and other administration officials had said the administration supported the goals of both of the bills but there was no specific endorsement of either bill. Specifically, Inouye told Metro Weekly in March 2011, “We support the goals of both of these bills. This 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, bullying and harassment.”

When the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee considered the Elementary and Secondary Education Reauthorization Act of 2011, it passed the bill in October 2011 without inclusion of or even a vote on either the SNDA or the SSIA.

The SSIA was reintroduced by Sens. Bob Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) the week of the White House bullying conference in 2011 and currently has 38 co-sponsors. The House version, introduced the next month by Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.), currently has 147 co-sponsors. The SNDA, meanwhile, was reintroduced by Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) and Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) the week of the bullying conference in 2011. The House bill has 157 co-sponsors, and the Senate version has 37 co-sponsors. 

Human Rights Campaign president Joe Solmonese said in a statement, “The President’s endorsement of the SNDA and SSIA recognizes the importance of providing LGBT students with the same civil rights protections as other students. No student should feel scared when walking into their school and these bills would address the discrimination and bullying that our youth have endured for far too long.”

Regarding the SNDA, the American Civil Liberties Union, which has strongly pressed the bill, called the development “key.”

“Having the White House stand behind the Student Non-Discrimination Act is key to getting this necessary legislation passed into law,” Ian Thompson, ACLU legislative representative, said in a statement. “Our public schools should be a safe harbor for our youth, not a place of exclusion and ridicule. By passing the Student Non-Discrimination Act, Congress can have a profound and very real impact in improving the lives of LGBT students. It’s time to make passage of this bill a priority.”

The news comes as the White House has faced blistering criticism — from LGBT advocates to The Washington Post editorial board — for Obama’s decision not to pursue an executive order banning federal contractors from discriminating against employees on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. 

Today’s endorsement also comes one day after The Huffington Post’s Amanda Terkel reported on New Mexico U.S. Senate candidate Heather Wilson’s comments criticizing the SNDA.

UPDATE @ 6:10P: Following the publication of this article, additional individuals and groups commented on today’s endorsement:

  • Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.): “I’m extremely pleased that President Obama has endorsed my Student Non-Discrimination Act, which will help ensure that LBGT students can attend school free of harassment, discrimination and violence. This endorsement is an enormous step forward for equality, but on a human level it is about the right of any student in America to attend school and learn without the fear of being bullied. I intend to work with President Obama and Senator Franken, who introduced the companion bill, to see that the Student Non-Discrimination Act becomes the law of the land.”
  • Mara Keisling, National Center for Transgender Equality executive director: “These two safe schools bills are just tremendously important to trans youth and President Obama’s endorsement is another example of his broad commitment to trans people and trans issues. According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, trans and gender nonconforming young people face startling amounts of harassment, assault and sexual violence at school, with more extreme rates of harassment and violence among trans youth of color. Trans kids are hurting and we have a way to stop that. Congress must act quickly to protect our transgender young people.”
  • Jeff Krehely, Center for American Progress vice president: “Together, these bills offer a comprehensive approach to ensure that all children—including those who are gay and transgender—in our nation’s public schools have a safe and positive environment in which to learn. President Obama should be commended for his leadership on this issue. We hope that the administration continues raising awareness of this problem and its impact on gay and transgender youth.”
  • Rea Carey, National Gay & Lesbian Task Force executive director: “We have a responsibility to ensure all young people are protected from this pervasive bullying, discrimination and abuse. Parents, educators, policymakers — all of us — need to stand against this unacceptable behavior. The president did that today. We urge him to now help get these life-saving bills through Congress.”
  • Abbe Land, Trevor Project executive director: “At The Trevor Project, we know that young people who are at risk to harm themselves, including attempting  suicide, are less likely to do so if they know of one resource that they can safely turn to in times of crisis. By endorsing these important pieces of legislation, the Obama Administration is sending a strong message to ensure every school and university has the support and responsibility to be a life-saving, life-affirming resource.”

[Photo: President Obama addresses attendees of the White House Bullying Prevention Conference on March 10. (Photo by Ward Morrison.)]