Gay-Rights Groups Draft Guide To Laws on Harassment

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Two national groups hoping to make schools safe from harassment and discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender students have teamed up to produce a guidebook that describes which types of state laws and policies best meet that mission.

Release of the guide comes as lawmakers in Florida and New York consider measures designed to safeguard all students against verbal and physical abuse.

The Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund and the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network released A Guide to Effective Statewide Laws/Policies: Preventing Discrimination Against LGBT Students in K-12 Schools on Jan. 15.

The publication outlines the various legal matters the groups say legislators must consider when seeking to write statewide policies that protect all students, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. It also describes the processes and pitfalls advocates of such policies must consider before pursuing legal protections for gay and other students.

"This isn't about the issue of sexual orientation," said M.K. Cullen, the director of public policy at the New York City-based GLSEN. "It's about whether a student can go to school without being threatened or harassed. It's an issue of equitable educational access, and that's the bottom line."

Heading Off Lawsuits

According to the guidebook, five states—California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, and Wisconsin—have statutes that bar harassment or discrimination based on sexual orientation in their public schools.

In addition, Minnesota and New Jersey have added language to existing civil rights laws that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation in schools, as well as other areas, such as housing and employment.

The Lambda Legal Defense Fund and GLSEN emphasize that it is important for states to provide implementation guidelines for schools after such laws are passed.

In California, for example, a task force released a report last spring that listed recommendations for how schools could put into practice a state law, passed in 2000, that prohibits harassment or discrimination against students or staff members based on their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. ("Calif. Panel Urges Safer Climate for Gay Students, Staff," April 18, 2001.)

David S. Buckel, a senior staff lawyer with the New York City-based Lambda organization, said that by putting in place statutes that name gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender students as a group protected against harassment and discrimination in schools, states also could help reduce the number of lawsuits brought against school districts by students who are mistreated.

For example, in a landmark case settled in 1996, the Ashland, Wis., district agreed to pay more than $900,000 to settle a suit brought by Lambda on behalf of Jaime Nabozny, a gay former student who said that administrators had failed to respond to his frequent complaints of verbal and physical abuse based on his sexual orientation.

Since then, Mr. Buckel said, "there's been an explosion of lawsuits cropping up around the country."

Just this month, the Titusville Area School District in Pennsylvania agreed to pay $312,000 to settle a case brought by a former student who said that school officials had allowed name-calling, hitting, and taunting directed at him to go unchecked.

"The problem with lawsuits is that it means that some child has been terribly, terribly hurt," Mr. Buckel said. "These laws can help slow this down and hopefully stop it."

New York lawmakers are expected to take up the issue in the coming weeks. The proposed Dignity for All Students Act, which was introduced last week, would require that all schools provide students with an environment free of discrimination or harassment based on actual or perceived race, color, national origin, ethnic group, religious practice, disability, or sex, as well as sexual orientation and gender identity.

"We worked diligently over the past year to make sure this wasn't just a 'gay' bill," said Stephen B. Kaufman, the chief of staff for Assemblyman Steven Sanders, a Democrat and the sponsor of the bill in the lower chamber. "It addresses a myriad of problems in school settings. The protections it affords are probably needed in every state."

Mr. Kaufman said that the measure would likely be approved in the Assembly, which has a Democratic majority, but that its supporters were still looking for a co-sponsor from the Senate's Republican majority.

Meanwhile, some Florida legislators are pursuing a similar measure. Rep. Kenneth Allan Gottlieb, a Democrat, is the House sponsor of a bill that is also called the Dignity for All Students Act, which has yet to be heard in committee.

"I don't want anyone to be discriminated against or harassed," Mr. Gottlieb said. "This would require school districts to put policies in place and then train teachers so that we can better handle problems before they become tragic."

Vol. 21, Issue 20, Pages 19-20

Published in Print: January 30, 2002, as Gay-Rights Groups Draft Guide To Laws on Harassment
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