Op-ed: Does the Obama Administration Support SNDA?

By Advocate Contributors

Originally published on Advocate.com March 26 2012 4:00 PM ET

During the White House Conference on Safe Schools and
Communities held at the University of Texas at Arlington on Tuesday, Atty.
Gen. Eric Holder and White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett both
walked up to the line of an endorsement
for the Student Non-Discrimination
Act.  Holder, echoing
the remarks of Jarrett
, said that the Obama administration “strongly
supports the goals” of SNDA, characterizing it as a critical next step that
needs to be taken to ensure the continued progress of the LGBT community, and,
in this case, students who are or are presumed to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, or
transgender  in our nation’s public K-12
schools.

The Student
Non-Discrimination Act would provide LGBT students, and those perceived
to be, with long-overdue and much-needed explicit federal protections by
establishing a comprehensive prohibition against discrimination and harassment
in all public elementary and secondary schools across the country based on a
student’s actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.

While the recent conference in Texas was not the first time
that administration
officials have expressed
support for the goals of SNDA, the comments of
Holder and Jarrett are noteworthy because they came not in response to a
question from a member of Congress or reporter but affirmatively in their remarks
to the conference attendees. Additionally, these two officials specifically singled out SNDA for recognition,
sending a clear message about the central importance of this legislation to the
LGBT community, and LGBT youth and students in particular.

Most people reading the remarks of Holder and Jarrett about
“strongly supporting the goals” of SNDA would not see a distinction between
what has been said and a full endorsement; however, there is. And the time has
come for the Obama administration to give its full backing and support to
SNDA. Earlier this month, a
coalition of 70 national and state organizations
sent a letter to President
Obama specifically urging him to publicly support and endorse SNDA.

One of the
most critical reasons why the administration needs to endorse SNDA is
Congress. A public endorsement from
President Obama and his administration would make clear to
all members of Congress what the administration views as a necessary federal
legislative solution to the serious problem of anti-LGBT discrimination and
harassment in our nation’s public schools. Saying that you support the goals of SNDA is a great first step, but it
is not a replacement for an actual endorsement.

It is simply unfathomable that, in the year 2012, there is a
not a federal civil rights law that specifically protects LGBT students on the
basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity. There is a clear and compelling need for such
a law. A 2009 study
by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network of more than 7,000 LGBT
middle and high school students across the U.S. found that
nine out of 10 reported experiencing harassment
at their school within the
past year based on their sexual orientation or gender identity, and two-thirds
said they felt unsafe at school because of who they are. Nearly one third skipped at least one day of
school within the previous month because of concerns for their safety.  Additionally, LGBT youth are also
at a significantly increased risk for suicide related to mental health issues
that often arise from poor treatment and discrimination in schools

While federal laws currently protect
students on the basis of their race, color, sex, religion, disability or
national origin, no federal statute explicitly protects students on the basis
of actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. The Student Non-Discrimination Act would do
just that. Nearly 50 years of civil
rights history
clearly demonstrate that laws similar to the proposed SNDA
are effective in preventing discrimination and harassment from occurring in the
first place by prompting schools to take proactive steps that ensure a safe and
supportive learning environment for all students who are in their care.

 SNDA
would have a profound impact
in improving the lives of LGBT students. And, critically important to an organization
like the ACLU, it would do so in a way that preserves the right of all students
to speak freely while protecting the right of all students to benefit equally from a public education. As Jarrett said in her remarks, SNDA “reflects a
simple fact — that LGBT students have the same right as every other student to
go to school in an environment free of discrimination and harassment.”

 The
time has come
for the Obama administration to fully endorse and support
this critically important and long-overdue legislation.

 

IAN
THOMPSON is a legislative representative in the American Civil Liberties
Union’s Washington legislative office. Thompson works
to advance the organization’s civil liberties and civil rights agenda in
Congress and the executive branch, with a focus on LGBT rights.