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By Spencer Perry
August 20, 2015
Caption : Political and community leaders have been working tirelessly to ensure the safety and well-being of students by advocating for new policies and seeking to create a cultural shift in the way bullying and harassment are treated.     

2015 has been the summer of (LGBT) love.

Following the Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage coast to coast, many LGBT individuals celebrated at the court house and Americans on both sides of aisle cheered. At the same time, leaders in the LGBT rights movement were planning how to translate the momentum behind marriage into progress on the myriad challenges that LGBT communities face, not the least of which is bullying and harassment of LGBT young people.

The statistics are alarming. The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN)’s 2013 National School Climate Survey found that 85 percent of LGBT middle and high school students reported experiencing verbal harassment in the past year and 30 percent missed at least one day of school in the past month because they felt unsafe or uncomfortable. Moreover, 62 percent of LGBT students indicated that staff took no action in response to reports of harassment and assault, or told students to simply ignore it. Within higher education, 23 percent of LGB students report experiencing harassment compared with 12 percent of their peers, with even higher rates for transgender students. Additionally, LGBT young people have disproportionate rates of substance use, eating disorders, sexually transmitted infections, and depression.

Political and community leaders have been working tirelessly to ensure the safety and well-being of students by advocating for new policies and seeking to create a cultural shift in the way bullying and harassment are treated. Most recently, the Tyler Clementi Foundation, or TCF, announced a new campaign called Day 1. TCF formed after the suicide of gay college student Tyler Clementi, who had been targeted by peers for harassment, and the new campaign challenges students, teachers, and businesses to combat bullying on the first day of class, a new job, fraternity rush, or a sports season by clearly defining bullying to their members and setting expectations for acceptable behavior.

The first step to combating bullying is to prevent it, said Sean Kosofsky, executive director of TCF and veteran community organizer.

While some approaches focus on effective responses to harassment once it occurs, Kosofsky believes it is important to focus on prevention, not just reaction. “It’s essential to have systems and programs to respond to bullying, but we need more being done before bullying even takes place,” he said.

But even when prevention measures are in place, Kosofsky says that colleges struggle to address survivors’ needs. Even colleges leading the field in addressing harassment often neglect the disparities for certain demographics of students. “Just saying ‘respect one another’ doesn’t cut it,” said Kosofsky. “[Colleges] have to know how to specifically respond to the needs of certain populations.”

For the LGBT community, addressing those needs can mean saving lives.

Before victims of harassment even reach out for help from an administrator, they have to overcome the stigma associated with being bullied. “Must people hear the word ‘bullying’ and think of an elementary schoolyard,” Kosofsky explained. However, bullying exists in high school, college, and even professional life. It’s experienced by every type of person, and minorities face disproportionate rates of harassment. Kosofsky also noted that “cultural attitudes that allow cruelty toward LGBT students to go unchecked likely play some role in the high rates of mental health issues, self-harm, and suicide.” In response, according to Kosofsky, Day 1 encourages institutions to commit their resources to combating bullying, which includes having a “person of authority” coming out in full support of vulnerable populations.

Day 1 and related campaigns to create safe environments for marginalized students are important—but cannot be the only path forward. Solutions must be comprehensive; changes in culture alone are not enough. To make the most meaningful change, culture changes must be paired with advancements in policy.

Congress is considering several crucial pieces of legislation that would create more formal processes to ensure that educational institutions are committed to the safety of all students. They include the Tyler Clementi Act (TCA), the Safe Schools Improvement Act (SSIA), the Student Non-Discrimination Act (SNDA), and the Equality Act.

The Safe Schools Improvement Act would protect students from kindergarten through 12th grade from harassment. SSIA would ensure that schools prohibit bullying on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, disability, religion, and for the first time, gender identity and sexual orientation. The Student Non-Discrimination Act would bar public schools from discriminating against anyone on the basis of their own or someone else’s sexual orientation or gender identity, whether actual or perceived—meaning that a student harassed for their friendship with a LGBT person or because others think they are LGBT would be protected regardless of how they actually identify. Although SNDA has not yet been passed, it has served as a template for localities to adopt their own non-discrimination policies.

Within higher education, the Tyler Clementi Act was first introduced in 2010 by Sen. Lautenberg (D-NJ) to require colleges and universities that receive federal funding to enact anti-harassment policies. The legislation includes sexual orientation and gender identity in a list of enumerated categories on which harassment may be based, and would create a grant program for institutions to combat harassment. Just this March, TCA was reintroduced in Congress, this time by Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI), Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), and Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI).

Most recently, the Equality Act, introduced for the first time this year, is the most comprehensive piece of LGBT nondiscrimination legislation ever introduced. One of its most crucial provisions would prohibit discrimination by institutions receiving federal funding. That means that if passed, LGBT students would be protected in nearly every school and college across the country. To date, the Equality Act has 169 sponsors and co-sponsors in the House and 40 sponsors and co-sponsors in the Senate.

These pieces of legislation reinforce the principles behind campaigns to change school climate by ensuring that institutions create and maintain effective and meaningful anti-harassment policies. They would also create a federal standard for equal educational opportunity, for all schools to meet.

While political powerhouses bring the battle to Congress, Kosofsky from the Day 1 campaign noted that the participation and action of young people is essential to eliminating bullying against LGBT students. Students can advocate for school boards to adopt nondiscrimination policies, speak with their congressional and state legislators, engage the press, and most importantly, be the coach, teammate, coworker, or roommate that young people like Clementi deserve. After all, laws are meaningless without societal changes to reinforce them.

Spencer Perry is a former intern with the Center for American Progress. 


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