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Franken Takes on Bullying

Franken Takes on Bullying


Minnesota senator Al Franken, who earlier this year introduced a bill explicitly addressing antigay bullying in public schools, has condemned recent statements by a social conservative group claiming that such legislation is not only unnecessary but would serve to indoctrinate students into homosexuality.

Franken responded to comments by Minnesota Family Council president Tom Prichard, who in a blog post last week said that "homosexual activists" were manipulating media attention of multiple suicides this past year in the Anoka-Hennepin school district in the Minneapolis area to further an agenda. Prichard also asserted that LGBT youths are at greater risk of suicide because "they've embraced an unhealthy sexual identity and lifestyle" -- not because they face a well-documented higher incidence of harassment from their peers.

Of the comments, Franken told The Advocate, "After all the tragedy that Anoka-Hennepin school district students have endured this year, I find it unbelievable that anyone would suggest that bullying is not a problem.

"It's clear that we need to do more to protect our students from bullying and harassment, and it's time that we extend equal rights to LGBT students," Franken said. "No student should be subjected to discrimination and harassment in school, and we must tackle this problem at every level -- local, state, and federal."

Franken said the teen suicides resulting from antigay bullying in Minnesota -- as well as those reported around the country in recent weeks and months, spurring unprecedented media attention on the issue -- has made passage of the federal Student Non-Discrimination Act a priority.

That bill, introduced by Franken in May, would expressly prohibit schools from discriminating against students based on sexual orientation and gender identity or ignoring harassment based on those characteristics. Schools found to violate the law could lose funding from federal departments and agencies.

Franken is seeking to include the legislation in the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind law, expected to be voted on next year. Thus far he has attracted 25 cosponsors for the bill: 24 Democrats and Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats. Additional sponsors are expected when Congress returns after the November midterm elections.

Companion legislation of the senate bill was introduced in the House of Representatives in January by Rep. Jared Polis, one of three openly gay congressional representatives.

Minnesota LGBT advocates also emphasized the need to codify language in state law condemning harassment based on sexual orientation and gender identity, whether actual or perceived. "The current law clearly isn't working," said Monica Meyer, executive director of OutFront Minnesota, a state LGBT group. "When you have LGBT or questioning students bullied, it's really important for the policies to name the harassment for what it is. Often schools are timid in addressing that sort of harassment for fear that they're seen as promoting homosexuality."

According to a study released in September by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, 85% of LGBT students surveyed said they've been bullied at school. Although there has been an increase in the availability of LGBT support groups and resources in schools nationwide, the use of gay slurs among youths has not decreased significantly in the last five years, the study found.

Caitlin Ryan, director of the Family Acceptance Project, said, "There has been a lot of research in schools about how to provide a safe climate and to support LGBT students. What we don't see is schools stepping up and putting those measures in place. We know what works. It takes will to put it into place."

Minnesota Family Council's Prichard defended his views in a telephone interview, however (read the original report on Prichard's post from the Minnesota Independenthere). Though he said his group condemns bullying of all stripes, Prichard said that addressing antigay harassment as school policy "is really just a pretext for reeducating students about beliefs on homosexuality" and that the Anoka-Hennepin school district's antibullying protocols are already sufficient.

"Clearly [gay advocacy groups] are trying to add sexual orientation into the curriculum and to use this tragedy to achieve that goal," Prichard said, referring to the July suicide of Justin Aaberg, a 15-year-old high school student in Anoka who hanged himself and had endured antigay bullying at school.

Prichard said students and parents in the district told him that Aaberg committed suicide due to a breakup with his boyfriend, not because of bullying. "People say [gays] have a higher incidence of [mental health problems] because they're not embraced, or because they're ostracized. I don't think so," Prichard said. "It's unhealthy behavior."

But equating gay-inclusive antibullying standards with "indoctrination" is a well-worn, misleading argument from prominent antigay groups such as Focus on the Family and the Alliance Defense Fund, experts say.

"Talking about the fact that LGBT people exist doesn't have to mean that you're trying to change personal or religious beliefs," said Stuart Biegel, a professor of law and education at the University of California, Los Angeles, and author of the forthcoming The Right to Be Out: Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in America's Public Schools.

"Some members of the school community are going to be gay or lesbian or transgender: Acknowledging that reality simply means that you are treating everyone with equal dignity and equal respect," Biegel said.
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