Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy, On the SNDA amendment to the Every Child Achieves Act

This important debate about how to improve our schools is an opportunity to ensure that children have access to equal educational opportunities.  Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students often face pervasive harassment and bullying in our schools.  We must ensure that all children can attend school in a safe and healthy environment.  That is why I am proud to support the amendment offered by Senator Franken. 

Similar to his bill on this topic, the Student Non-Discrimination Act, this amendment would instill core principles of basic civil rights in our nation’s schools.  These are commonsense, fundamental rights that all Americans deserve, particularly children.  No person – of any age – should face discrimination because of their race, economic status, religion, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, or learning abilities.

I have heard from countless Vermont parents about their children being bullied at school and online.  I am reminded of the tragic story of Ryan Halligan, an Essex Junction student who took his own life at age 13 after being bullied for his physical appearance.  After years of torment, the teasing Ryan endured turned into physical violence.  Ryan was harassed online by one of his peers, who took private messages Ryan had sent and showcased them for other students in the school. Ryan was later publically shamed for what he thought was an innocent interaction between himself and a friend. 

No child should ever face the needless horror of harassment or bullying.  Unfortunately, as many as 7 in 10 students who are, or are perceived to be, lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender have been bullied or harassed.  But unlike other forms of harassment in our schools, bullying based on gender identity and sexual orientation is often overlooked, and students and their parents have limited legal options to hold schools accountable for discriminatory treatment. 

The Franken amendment would extend Federal protections from discrimination in public schools based on actual or perceived gender identity or sexual orientation.  The amendment prohibits public school students from being excluded from educational programs on the basis sexual identity and allows students to take civil action against such discrimination.  It also ensures that students who file suit will not face retaliation of any kind.  It is a sad reality that discrimination still exists in our country, and that Americans need the powerful antidiscrimination protection of our civil rights laws.  But these abuses are happening in our schools, and children are suffering as a result.

What is worse, LGBT youth who face bullying at school do not always have a sanctuary at home.  A disproportionate and growing number of runaway and homeless youth are LGBT, often because their families have rejected them.  We must ensure that these kids have a safe place to stay, because they are vulnerable to abuse and sexual exploitation while living on the street.  That is why Senator Collins and I included a nondiscrimination provision in another key piece of legislation, the Runaway and Homeless Youth and Trafficking Prevention Act.  This bill would ensure that no child in need of shelter is turned away based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.  We cannot protect these children from every injustice they might face, but we should at least ensure that they will be safe in our public schools and federally funded shelters.  I will continue to fight for these protections.

I am proud of the many students in Vermont who have taken steps to prevent bullying in their schools and communities. In 2014, Rutland High School students were nationally recognized for their “Positive Post-it” campaign, in which small notes of praise and encouragement to fellow students were placed on windows and message boards throughout the school.  These young students at Rutland High School should be commended for reminding us all that bullying and discrimination have no place at school.  Students across the country are doing their part and we must do ours as well. 

Last month, the Supreme Court issued two consequential and historic rulings protecting the basic rights of all Americans to marry and to access housing free from discrimination.  Our nation has come a long way but our work must continue.  All Americans, especially our children, deserve the same Federal protections.  We have the opportunity to extend this simple principle of basic fairness to children across this country and make our schools safe places for all children to learn.  I hope all Senators will support this important amendment.   

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