Blog of Rights

The Continuing Need to Protect LGBT Students Across the Country

By Ian S. Thompson, ACLU Washington Legislative Office at 10:23am

As you may already know, yesterday we announced the settlement of Constance McMillen’s lawsuit against her Mississippi high school for canceling the prom rather than allowing her attend with her girlfriend as her date and wear a tuxedo. 

While a terrific personal victory for Constance and a vindication of her rights, the agreement is especially noteworthy in that it will result in the implementation of a policy banning discrimination and harassment on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in the Itawamba County School District – the first such policy to do so at a public school in the state of Mississippi. The fact that, in the year 2010, there was not one policy at any public school protecting LGBT students from discrimination and harassment in Mississippi prior to this agreement is a sad reminder of how vulnerable LGBT youth remain.
 
The ACLU’s own work advocating for equal protection for LGBT students across the country is replete with examples of those who have suffered discriminatory treatment at the very hands of those tasked with providing them with an education and ensuring their safety within schools. For example:
  • A female student in a northern California school faced daily anti-gay harassment and discrimination from teachers and school staff and was required to participate in a school-sponsored “counseling” group designed to discourage students from being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. 
  • A male freshman at a high school in Tennessee was sent home from school for wearing a T-shirt that said, “I [Love] Lady Gay Gay.” Before that, he had long been subjected to daily anti-gay harassment at school, including threats of physical violence. He was not only unable to get help from the school, he was told by school employees that he had “brought it on himself by coming out.”
  • A female student in a public high school in Orange County, California was repeatedly singled out for discipline (including a one-week suspension), had her sexual orientation revealed to her family without her permission by school officials, and was forced to transfer to another school in the middle of the second semester. The student, who previously had straight-A grades and a spotless disciplinary record, was punished for occasionally showing affection towards her girlfriend, even though heterosexual students were routinely allowed to hold hands, hug and kiss on campus.
These three examples, rather than being the rare instance of discriminatory treatment, speak directly to the experiences of daily life for many LGBT students. In a comprehensive 2007 study of 6,209 middle and high school students entitled the National School Climate Survey, nine out of 10 LGBT students reported that they had experienced harassment at their school in the past year. Additionally, three-fifths felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation, and about one-third reported that they had skipped a day of school in the past month because of feeling unsafe. Such a toxic environment denies LGBT students their right to an equal education, and contributes to unacceptably high rates of absenteeism, dropouts, adverse health (including mental health) consequences, and academic underachievement. 
 
Thankfully, there is currently legislation pending in both the House of Representatives and Senate that would provide LGBT students across the country with a comprehensive federal prohibition against discrimination in public schools. This legislation – known as the Student Non-Discrimination Act (SNDA) would protect students based on their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity and would provide victims of such discrimination and harassment with effective legal remedies. Currently, SNDA has the support of 121 members in the House of Representatives and 23 members in the Senate. 
 
Similar federal protections already exist for public school students on the basis of their race, color, sex, religion, disability or national origin. Despite the fact that LGBT students are particularly vulnerable to experience discrimination and harassment at school, they remain glaringly absent from such federal civil rights statutes. Congress needs to act to ensure that what happened to Constance and so many other LGBT students just like her at schools across the country will no longer be allowed. Simply having the federal government affirmatively on the side of protecting LGBT students would send a very powerful message in and of itself.
 
There are many compelling reasons why passage of the Student Non-Discrimination Act (H.R. 4530 and S. 3390) is so important. Constance McMillen and the LGBT students, both known and unknown, of Mississippi are but one.
 
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