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After String of Suicides, LGBT Advocates Renew Push for Federal Anti-Bullying Bill

Tyler_Clementi.jpg

Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old Rutgers University, student leapt to his death this week after his college roommate filmed him having sex with another male student and broadcast it on the Internet.

CREDIT: Facebook / Tyler Clementi

This week Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old Rutgers University student leapt to his death after his college roommate filmed him having sex with another male student and broadcast it on the Internet. But Clementi isn't the only suicide resulting from bullying or harassment based on sexual orientation. In July, 15-year-old Justin Aaberg, a student in Minnesota’s Anoka-Hennepin schools, took his own life.

The list of dead teens grew steadily over the following months: Billy Lucas, a 15-year-old Indiana high school student was found dead Sept. 7. Thirteen-year-old Houston student Asher Brown shot himself on Sept. 21. On Sept. 26, 13-year-old Seth Walsh hanged himself from a tree in the backyard of his California home. And, today brings news of yet another suicide by 19-year-old Johnson & Wales University student Raymond Chase, who also hanged himself in his Providence, R.I., dorm room on Sept. 29.

LGBT advocacy groups and leaders have been quick and forthright in their responses.

“Our young people deserve better than to go to schools where they are treated this way,” said Judy Shepard, mother of 1998 hate crime murder victim Matthew Shepard, according to The Washington Blade. “We have to make schools a safe place for our youth to prepare for their futures, not be confronted with threats, intimidation or routine disrespect.”

Charles Robbins, executive director of The Trevor Project, a national LGBT youth suicide prevention organization, told New York Magazine gay youth are people left behind.

"The average age of coming out is now 14,” Robbins says. “So when you have youth who are developing their sexual orientation at an earlier age, and they're experiencing negative impacts from that from school and family, it increases the chance they'll develop mental-health issues. And that's what's happening. You're seeing that played out every school year at the beginning of the school year."

GLSEN, PFLAG, and The Trevor Project released a joint statement detailing the need for changes in schools and communities.

“The horrible instances of school bullying that have led young people to take their own lives reflect the growing need for a change in our culture to value the differences of our youth,” the joint statement reads. “That cultural shift must begin now, in communities, schools, and at home by recognizing and addressing the needs of LGBTQ youth, and letting them know they are not alone. It is now up to all of us to make sure it happens.”

The issue of bullying in schools has been getting some attention in recent months. In mid-September, two groups, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) and Campus Pride, both released reports on the rates and prevalence of bullying and hostile school climates for middle and high school students and in colleges and universities, respectively.

The data collected in the reports led GLSEN and Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) to partner in presenting new ways for middle and high school students to report incidents of anti-LGBT bullyingand harassment to the Department of Education’s Civil Rights Office.

Now in hindsight—after six reported gay youth suicides, two committed by college students—the merely academic discussion on these issues seems to have tragically foreshadowed real life examples of the harrowing situations documented by the advocacy groups.

Now GLSEN, PFLAG, and The Trevor Project are calling on Congress to pass the Safe Schools Improvement Act. The bill, sponsored in the House by Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.) and in the Senate by Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), would implement a comprehensive federal anti-bullying policy. Another bill, introduced in the House by openly gay Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) and in the Senate by Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn), is called The Student Non-Discrimination Act and provides protection for students that is inclusive of sexual orientation and gender identity/expression.

Campus Pride, which just last week joined with Campus Progress and the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus in presenting new recommendations from its “2010 State of Higher Education for LGBT People,” is also making a renewed call for systematic and institutional change.

Shane Windmeyer, Campus Pride’s executive director, says, “Campus Pride demands national action be taken to address youth bullying, harassment and the need for safety and inclusion for LGBT youth at colleges and universities across the country. We must not let these tragic deaths go unnoticed. Together we must act decisively to curb anti-LGBT bias incidents, harassment and acts of violence.”

Research from both GLSEN and Campus Pride show bullying, harassment and suicide decrease across all levels of education when schools have comprehensive, LGBT-inclusive anti-bullying policies and when student- or school-run LGBT support systems, like gay-straight alliances or LGBT student centers, are present on campus. Levels of bullying and harassment and perceived negative learning environments are higher among gender-variant youth and young people of color.

Matt Comer is a staff writer for Campus Progress.

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