March 10, 2011
Wendy Walsh, ACLU Client Whose Son Took Own Life After Bullying, Voices Support Of Bills
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WASHINGTON – An important bill was introduced simultaneously in the House and Senate today that would protect students from discrimination, including harassment “based on actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity” in public elementary and secondary schools. The Student Non-Discrimination Act (SNDA) would help to end entrenched biases towards lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students in our public education system by filling gaps in our federal civil rights laws. Today’s bills were introduced by Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) and Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO). The American Civil Liberties Union strongly supports these bills and urges swift action by both chambers.
“The Student Non-Discrimination Act would have a profound impact in improving the lives of LGBT students in our schools,” said Ian Thompson, ACLU Legislative Representative. “As a country, we must do a better job of protecting LGBT students and ensuring their right to an education free of intolerance and harassment. So many LGBT students face daily discrimination and, too often, violence in our schools. It’s time to make a positive difference in their lives. The House and Senate should make passage of this bill a priority.”
The recent tragic deaths of young gay students from across the country underscore the fact that LGBT students are an especially vulnerable population in our nation’s schools. Discrimination and harassment, even physical abuse, are often a part of these students’ daily lives. Seth Walsh was one of those students. A 13-year-old middle school student, he was bullied and harassed at school for his sexual orientation. Seth's mother and close friends report that teachers and school administrators were aware that Seth was being harassed and, in some instances, participated in the harassment. His mother's pleas to the school for help were often brushed aside. In September 2010, Seth hanged himself from a tree in his backyard. A note Seth left upon his death expresses love for his family and close friends, and anger at the school for bringing them "this sorrow."
“Seth was a wonderful, loving child, and I loved him for who he was. I can't bring my son back. But schools can make a difference today by taking bullying seriously when students and parents tell them about it. It’s time for change. We have to create better schools for everyone,” said Wendy Walsh.
In December 2010, the ACLU wrote a letter to Seth’s school demanding that they take steps to remedy the hostile environment for students who are or are perceived to be LGBT. His mother, Wendy, attended the White House Conference on Bullying Prevention earlier today and spoke in support of the SNDA at its introduction.
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 SNDA, like Title IX, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the various disability civil rights statutes, is not simply legislation that would remedy discrimination after it occurs, but instead would also have the important impact of preventing discrimination from occurring.