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Preparing America's Future Workforce: Harassment and Bullying in Schools and How We Can Stop It

Sexual harassment in the workplace is back in the news, for better or worse. But any productive discussion about sexual harassment should include harassment in schools as well as the workplace, both of which are prohibited by federal civil rights laws.

As a new study by the American Association of University Women shows, sexual harassment in schools is a serious problem, one that deserves serious public attention. The study found that about half of students in middle or high school experienced some form of sexual harassment at school during the 2010-2011 academic year.

In addition, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, charged with enforcing Title IX, the federal law prohibiting sex discrimination in education, has recently reiterated that what may be commonly referred to as “bullying” may actually be prohibited sexual harassment.

But who’s left out? Although some harassment and bullying of LGBT students may be covered by Title IX — if those actions are due to a student’s failure to conform to gender stereotypes — there is no federal law that prohibits discrimination solely based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

This is a significant loophole in federal civil rights law; the AAUW study found that being called gay or lesbian in a negative way was the second most prevalent form of harassment. And in a 2009 study by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, 84% of LGBT youth reported verbal harassment, 40% reported physical harassment, and 18% reported being assaulted at school in the previous year because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

But two pending bills could help solve this problem and provide much-needed protection to LGBT students.

First, the Student Non-Discrimination Act (SNDA), introduced by Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), would outlaw discrimination in public K-12 schools based on sexual orientation or gender identity/expression. Senator Franken recently introduced SNDA — and then withdrew it for procedural reasons — during the Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee markup of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Franken gave a passionate and moving speech on the importance of SNDA, which boasts 34 co-sponsors in the Senate, and plans to offer it again on the floor when the chamber as a whole takes up the ESEA.

Second, the bipartisan (!!!) Safe School Improvement Act (SSIA), sponsored by Sen. Bob Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) and 32 co-sponsors, including Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), would require schools to undertake efforts to prevent bullying and harassment, including that on sexual orientation or gender identity. Senators Casey and Kirk introduced and then withdrew SSIA as an amendment to ESEA during the markup, but Sen. Casey plans to introduce it on the floor of the Senate. The SSIA has 113 co-sponsors from both parties in the House and SNDA has 147.

We need to ensure that Title IX, a historic advance in educational opportunities for women and girls, is protected against attack. But at the same time, we need to extend existing civil rights protections to LGBT students. All children deserve an education free from harassment. And if harassment is effectively addressed at school, there is hope that the employees of tomorrow will not face as much harassment in the workplace.

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