10/20/2010

Alabama School Policies Should Protect All Students, Including LGBT Students

Given the current epidemic of anti-LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) bullying and related student suicides across the country, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) calls on the Alabama State Department of Education (the SDE) to revise its Model Anti-Harassment Policy (the Model Policy) so that it protects all students, including LGBT students.

Most Alabama students attend schools that lack anti-harassment protection for LGBT students.  Because the Model Policy only prohibits bullying based on characteristics of race, sex, religion, national origin, and disability, LGBT students are denied protection afforded to other students and are in special danger.  We ask the SDE to strengthen the Model Policy by specifying anti-harassment protection for students based on actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity.  All students should feel safe at school, and an inclusive policy that addresses anti-LGBT bullying will help achieve that goal. 

Including a specific prohibition on anti-LGBT bullying in the Model Policy will not grant students special privileges on the basis of their sexual orientation any more than the policy’s current prohibition of race-based bullying grants students special privileges on the basis of the color of their skin.

Including a specific prohibition on anti-LGBT bullying in the Model Policy also will not signal an endorsement of the so-called “homosexual lifestyle” or require anyone to alter his or her religious beliefs about homosexuality.  Instead, it will reflect — and, more importantly, address — the simple fact that anti-LGBT bullying is among the most prevalent and deadly forms of bullying in our nation’s schools today.  

Research consistently shows that students report less bullying at schools with policies that specify certain types of bullying, including anti-LGBT bullying, compared to schools with policies that do not.  Enumeration sends staff and students a clear message that, regardless of community prejudices, the policy covers all students, including the socially weakest groups.  The NEA, the National PTA, the American Association of School Administrators, and the National Association of Secondary School Principals endorse enumeration as an important step to prevent bullying.

A survey of 402 Alabama high school students from February 2008 to May 2010 found that thirty-four percent of those surveyed felt unsafe at their schools because of their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.  Eighty-seven percent of the participants want their schools to enact policies prohibiting sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination. 

National figures show that as many as nine out of ten LGBT students experienced harassment in the past year – a rate three times higher than students in general.  LGBT adolescents are also up to four times as likely to be depressed and think about or attempt suicide as their non-LGBT peers.  Anti-LGBT bullying is not confined to students who are actually LGBT.  According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the National Mental Health Association, anti-LGBT bullying is also frequently directed at non-LGBT students who are perceived as such.

School districts and officials can be held liable for not stopping harassment and abuse of LGBT students.  The SPLC’s latest Teaching Tolerance film, Bullied, chronicles the story of a student who stood up to his anti-gay tormentors and filed a federal lawsuit against his school district and school officials in Wisconsin. That suit led to a landmark federal court decision holding school officials accountable.  We extend an invitation to policy makers to attend a local screening of Bullied at 230 Taylor Center, Auburn University Montgomery, on Oct. 20th at 6 p.m.

Despite that ruling, anti-LGBT bullying continues to be a severe, nationwide problem.  In Massachusetts, for example, 11-year-old Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover hanged himself with an extension cord in 2009 after being bullied by classmates who perceived him as gay.  In Indiana, another student hanged himself this past September after being subjected to anti-LGBT bullying.  In the Anoka-Hennepin School District in Minnesota, at least four LGBT students have committed suicide in the past year alone.

The SDE should act to protect all students in Alabama classrooms.  Anti-LGBT bullying can affect any student and all students deserve a safe school environment.  The tragic news reports from across the country are proof that policy makers can not afford to ignore this issue.  The consequences are simply too devastating.  We stand ready to provide assistance in developing a strengthened and inclusive Model Policy.