October 28 marked the one-year anniversary of President Obama’s signing of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. I recently wrote about how honoring Matthew is part of Making It Better. Not only must we make sure that the law bearing his name is effectively implemented, but we must also ensure school safety for LGBT youth – a fact not lost on the Department of Education.
The Department’s Office for Civil Rights has issued guidance to address bullying in schools, especially as it relates to federal education anti-discrimination laws. One of those laws, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (Title IX), prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex. While the language does not specify sexual orientation and gender identity, the Department has made clear that harassment on these grounds, under certain circumstances, violates Title IX.
Although Title IX does not prohibit discrimination based solely on sexual orientation, Title IX does protect all students, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students, from sex discrimination. When students are subjected to harassment on the basis of their LGBT status, they may also [. . .] be subjected to forms of sex discrimination prohibited under Title IX. The fact that the harassment includes anti-LGBT comments or is partly based on the target’s actual or perceived sexual orientation does not relieve a school of its obligation under Title IX to investigate and remedy overlapping sexual harassment or gender-based harassment. [. . .] Had the school recognized the conduct as a form of sex discrimination, it could have employed the full range of sanctions (including progressive discipline) and remedies designed to eliminate the hostile environment.
The Departments of Education and Justice are rightly focused on the plight of certain religious students and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students who may not be receiving the full protections from bullying and harassment that are their right. While additional, specific protections are still needed, I commend this Administration for doing all in its power to protect vulnerable students.
Federal leadership on this important issue is critical to ensure that schools are safe places for all students, and that they help foster a culture in which bias and bullying are not tolerated. The guidelines will help community members work together to promote a civil and respectful environment for children, online as well as offline.
In order to fully protect LGBT young people, HRC continues to call on the administration to go beyond today’s interpretation of existing law and come out in support of two important pieces of legislation: the Student Non-Discrimination Act and the Safe Schools Improvement Act. The Student Non-Discrimination Act would explicitly prohibit discrimination by schools against public school students on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. The Safe Schools Improvement Act would require schools and districts receiving federal funds to adopt codes of conduct specifically prohibiting bullying and harassment, including on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.