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ACLU Writes to UNESCO on Homophobia in U.S. Schools

Ian S. Thompson,
Senior Legislative Advocate,
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September 29, 2011

Late last week, the ACLU wrote to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) on the problem of homophobic discrimination and harassment in U.S. public schools. In addition, we offered a model federal legislative solution that would address this problem — the Student Non-Discrimination Act (S. 555/H.R. 998).

UNESCO, as part of one of its overarching objectives to ensure that all people have the ability to attain a quality education, is planning to organize the first-ever international consultation addressing homophobic discrimination and harassment in schools. This current effort focused on homophobia in schools follows the historic June resolution vote by the U.N. Human Rights Council to condemn violence and discrimination against those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT). This was the first U.N. resolution to focus solely on LGBT persons.

Discrimination, including harassment, of students who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, and those perceived to be, is a serious problem in public school districts across the United States. Despite this fact, no U.S. federal statute expressly protects students on the basis of actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. Federal laws currently protect students on the basis of their race, color, sex, religion, disability and national origin. Now, there is legislation currently pending in the U.S. Congress — the Student Non-Discrimination Act (H.R. 998/S. 555) — that would establish a comprehensive federal prohibition against discrimination, including harassment, in public elementary and secondary schools based on a student’s actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity, providing LGBT students with long overdue and much needed express federal protections.

In our comments, we discuss the role of federal civil rights laws in protecting students from discrimination and harassment in schools. The Student Non-Discrimination Act would prompt schools to work proactively to create a welcoming environment for LGBT students by adopting nondiscrimination and anti-harassment policies, which would include important training, monitoring, and reporting programs.

We also address the issue of how to protect students from discrimination and harassment while upholding the freedom of speech. There are those who contend that protections for students in public schools against discrimination, including harassment and bullying, are likely to run afoul of First Amendment free speech rights. However, when carefully crafted, non-discrimination and anti-harassment policies can both protect students from abuse while also preserving core free speech rights.

We further address steps that schools can currently take to protect all students from discrimination and harassment, including teaching why harassment is wrong and the damage it can do to others, as well as why tolerance and respect are essential to a free society.

The Student Non-Discrimination Act would have a profound impact in improving the lives of LGBT students in the U.S. by ensuring that discrimination, including harassment, of students on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity has no place in U.S. public elementary and secondary schools. Please join with the ACLU in urging Congress to pass the Student Non-Discrimination Act. It’s needed, is in keeping with current federal civil rights laws, and is consistent with protections for the speech of public school students under the First Amendment.

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