Members of Congress have re-introduced a bill to protect LGBTQ students from discrimination and harassment in public schools, deeming it necessary amid attempts by various school districts to refuse to acknowledge transgender students’ gender identity and treat them according to their correct gender.
The bill, known as the Student Non-Discrimination Act, was introduced Wednesday by U.S. Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) and U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), just a day after Education Secretary Betsy DeVos confirmed that the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights would not pursue discrimination complaints lodged by transgender students who are barred from facilities matching their gender identity.
Under DeVos’ leadership, the Department of Education has rescinded Obama-era guidance to schools recommending that they treat transgender students according to their gender identity. Last month, the department announced that it would be interpreting Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 as protecting only those students who are discriminated against or mistreated because of their biological sex at birth.
That narrow interpretation of Title IX was what fueled the department’s decision not to pursue complaints related to transgender students’ ability to access multi-user gender-affirming restrooms and locker rooms. However, the department insists it will investigate other complaints of discrimination, harassment, or bullying from transgender students, so long as they do not demand access to shared intimate spaces.
As written, the Student Non-Discrimination Act would require schools to prohibit and respond to any incidents involving discrimination, bullying or harassment of students in public schools from grades K-12 based on their real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. If a school does not respond adequately, the bill gives the student and his or her parent the legal standing to sue the school or the school district for its failure to protect the student.
“Congress must make absolutely clear that every student, including LGBTQ youth, must have access to an education free from discrimination, harassment and bullying,” Baldwin said in a statement. “As multiple federal courts of appeals have recognized, current law is properly understood to protect these young people. But with the Trump Administration walking back the federal government’s commitment to equality, it is critical that Congress act to eliminate any doubt and ensure these students are protected from discrimination.”
The bill has over 100 cosponsors in total, including U.S. Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), Bobby Scott (D-Va.), Don McEachin (D-Va.), and Mark Takano (D-Calif.). Many of those House cosponsors were part of a group of more than 90 other members of Congress who wrote a letter to DeVos and Acting Assistant Secretary of Education Candice Jackson urging the Education Department to reverse its current policy and look into complaints where transgender youth are barred from shared facilities that match their gender identity.
“All students, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, have the right to a safe learning space and should feel comfortable at school,” Polis said in a statement. “Congress needs to act and let all students know that we are on their side, and we not only believe everyone belongs — we believe that every child deserves a safe and civil learning environment.”
Supporters of the bill say it is crucial to ensuring the safety of LGBTQ students, citing a national study finding that lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth are more than twice as likely to have attempted suicide than their heterosexual peers. They also points to a 2016 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which found that negative attitudes toward LGBTQ youth put those students at increased risk of violence.
Ros-Lehtinen, the mother of a transgender son and a former Florida certified teacher, noted that if LGBTQ youth feel unaccepted, they can experience severe depression and may resort to substance abuse or even suicide to numb or end the pain they feel.
Takano, himself a former public school teacher, also praised the bill for addressing the alienation of LGBTQ students.
“America’s LGBTQ youth often face harrowing discrimination in their schools — mistreatment that can impact their academic achievement and forever limit their success in life,” Takano said in a statement. “At a time when three-quarters of LGBTQ youth report feeling unsafe in their school — and are twice as likely as their non-LGBTQ peers to experience harassment or violence — Congress must act to provide these young people with the protections they deserve.”
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