This morning, the Senate Judiciary Committee held an oversight hearing focused on the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. Assistant Attorney for Civil Rights Tom Perez testified about the steps his department is taking to ensure that the civil rights of the American people are protected. The Civil Rights Division received strong criticism during the Bush administration for failing to fully defend and protect the civil rights of vulnerable Americans. It was especially reassuring to hear Assistant Attorney General Perez state at the hearing that his department was once again open for business.
Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota used his Q&A time at the hearing to address the needs of students who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender and face harassment and discrimination in public schools across the country based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Sen. Franken discussed the recent settlement of J.L. v. Mohawk Central School District — a case filed by the New York Civil Liberties Union on behalf of a student who alleged that he was repeatedly harassed, threatened and physically assaulted at school for being gay and not conforming to gender stereotypes. The U.S. sought to join the lawsuit to address violations of the Equal Protection Clause and Title IX, both of which prohibit discrimination based on sex, including discrimination based on gender stereotypes. According to the Justice Department’s motion in the case, the school district had knowledge of the harassment facing J.L., yet was deliberately indifferent in its failure to take timely, corrective action.
In announcing the settlement, Assistant Attorney General Perez said “All students have the right to go to school without fearing harassment based on sex, including stereotypes about appropriate gender behavior.”
Sen. Franken stated the sad fact that J.L.’s case is hardly unique. Discrimination and harassment against LGBT students is an unacceptable daily reality in our nation’s schools. Despite the obvious need, there is currently no explicit prohibition in federal law that bars discrimination and harassment of LGBT students in public school. When Sen. Franken asked Perez for his views on this and whether there is a need for such legislation, Perez said that the federal government can make a difference in these types of cases, and that he would be happy to work with the senator in devising a solution to the lack of explicit federal protections for LGBT students in public schools.
Thankfully, legislation is currently pending in the House of Representatives which would address this problem. H.R. 4530, the Student Non-Discrimination Act, would establish a comprehensive federal prohibition against discrimination in public schools based on a student’s actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. Companion legislation will soon be introduced in the Senate.
Please email your members of Congress to urge them to support the Student Non-Discrimination Act. We owe it to students like J.L., Constance McMillen and Cole Goforth, who all had the courage to fight back, to ensure that they did not struggle in vain. Every student deserves the opportunity to attend school and learn.