In October and December of 2010, the Department of Education took a stand for LGBT youth by issuing 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.
Yesterday, the Department of Education released new guidance, this time focusing on the right of students under the Equal Access Act to form extracurricular clubs, including gay-straight alliances (GSAs).
Gay-straight alliances (GSAs) and similar student-initiated groups addressing LGBT issues can play an important role in promoting safer schools and creating more welcoming learning environments. Nationwide, students are forming these groups in part to combat bullying and harassment of LGBT students and to promote understanding and respect in the school community. Although the efforts of these groups focus primarily on the needs of LGBT students, students who have LGBT family members and friends, and students who are perceived to be LGBT, messages of respect, tolerance, and inclusion benefit all our students. By encouraging dialogue and providing supportive resources, these groups can help make schools safe and affirming environments for everyone.
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It is important to remember, therefore, that the Equal Access Act’s requirements are a bare legal minimum. I invite and encourage you to go beyond what the law requires in order to increase students’ sense of belonging in the school and to help students, teachers, and parents recognize the core values behind our principles of free speech.
The announcement was met with strong support across the safe schools community.
Eliza Byard, Executive Director, Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network:
Secretary Duncan’s Dear Colleague letter is a clear signal to schools and school districts that they may not discriminate against students who seek to form Gay-Straight Alliances. We are grateful to the Department of Education for supporting students’ rights, attempting to prevent discrimination and affirming the positive contributions Gay-Straight Alliances make to the life of our schools, right alongside other non-curricular clubs.
Laura Murphy, Director, ACLU Washington Legislative Office:
Gay-straight alliances can play a crucial role in improving students’ lives. Just as with other extra-curricular groups and clubs, students have a federal legal right to form GSAs. Our public schools should be promoting fairness and acceptance, not discrimination.
Gay-Straight Alliances are powerful forces in our schools. Not only do they offer a safe and supportive environment for LGBT students but they allow straight allies to show their support. One of the most powerful impacts that a GSA can have, however, is on those students who aren’t even members – the very existence of a GSA shows students who may still be coming to terms with their orientations that someone at their school cares.