Time to add another “protected class”?

Lady Gaga wants to speak with the President about students’ civil rights.

One week ago today, Jamey Rodemeyer, 14, committed suicide. Jamey was harassed in school and through social media for being gay. In one online video he tells us, “They’d taunt me in the hallways, and I thought I’d never escape it.” For strength Jamey embraced the message of Lady Gaga’s song,  “Born this Way. ” It became his personal anthem and she became his idol. His death hit her hard and she’s now calling for a movement to make gay bullying a crime.

Do we really need a new law?

Legislation seems to be the only way to curtail – we never completely stop – discrimination and acts of hate. For schools, federal civil rights laws already prohibit discrimination and harassment against certain groups in programs or activities that receive funds from the US Department of Education. The law makes discrimination based on race, color, and national origin, sex, disability, and age against the law in every state, in every educational institution.

These groups are members of a protected class of Americans. It’s clear who is missing from this list. Lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgender (LGBT) students, 90% of whom report being bullied in school, have not yet been identified as needing legal protection. Yet research continues to confirm that gay-bashing of students is a widespread and common occurence.

What have we done so far? 

In October 2010, Congress passed the Matthew Shepard & James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. This expanded the 1964 Hate Crimes Act to include crimes motivated by sexual orientation, gender, and gender identity.

But is bullying in our schools a crime? Not unless it escalates into physical violence and threats of bodily harm that break the law. This leaves schools free to treat  acts such as taunting, name-calling, rumor spreading, stalking, and cyber-bullying, which lie toward the middle of the violence continuum, however they see fit.

Publicity about suicides has increased our understanding that school staff are responsible for keeping the climate of their schools free from hostility and harassment. Schools are now advised, and in some cases required by state law, to treat such incidents seriously and to respond quickly and definitively.

But as history teaches us, without the authority of a federal law that identifies those who are LGBT as a protected class, the way students are treated will be hit or miss, helpful or harmful, and too often left to cause emotional and psychological damage.

If Lady Gaga and the rest of us continue to bring attention to the issue, we might just pass a new civil rights law that protects gay students.

Posted on September 25, 2011, in Bullying and Harassment, In the News, Laws and Policies, Perspectives, Prevention, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Liz, maybe passing another civil rights law to prevent bullying is one piece of the puzzle. But I think the message of your latest book about the violence continuum is the ultimate answer…because it addresses the underlying problem at its root cause. By teaching children an appreciation of diversity and compassion at an early age, bullying simply doesn’t happen. My daughter’s 5 year old niece by marriage recently stated from the backseat of the car here in diverse Tucson, AZ (paraphrased): “We can be friends with all kinds of people…people of different colors, and different sizes, and different backgrounds. I love all my different kinds of friends at school.” Amen, Ellie!

    • Thank you for all of your thoughtful comments. They always make me think and clarify my ideas-just what we all need to do regularly! Yes, there are many pieces of the puzzle and they are all critical – it’s that magical blend of idealism and pragmatism.

      There is a distinct pattern to changing core attitudes and behavior on a fundamental level. I think of how the 70-year women’s suffrage movement made little progress until the bare minimum of state legislatures finally passed the 19th Amendment in 1920, and the power of the breakthrough civil rights laws of the 1960’s that told us that what we had been doing for hundreds of years was wrong and unconstitutional. Our efforts in schools to teach pro-social skills and respectful treatment of others provide the rich environment for this profound personal growth. This is where our energy should focus.

      In the meantime, as our efforts with children are nurtured and take root over time, legal protections provide a strong statement that infringement of human rights will not be tolerated. They also provide missing guidance for school staff and a method of recourse for victims and their supporters. So legislation and policy are both a response to entrenched injustice and the catalyst for institutional change.

      In this case, for those in positions of power who do not have the inclination to take the mistreatment of gay students seriously, it is likely the necessary first step toward positive change. I like the adage that what you practice eventually becomes habit, and until protection of human rights is a mandate too many schools will never start practicing.

  2. I just read the last comment and my heart goes out to you. I sotimemes wonder if what I went through (given poor perormance review mid 2008 and then put on warning and probation late 2008) was a staged situation that my manager had to do to keep their job. I acknowledge that I was no star performer at Liberty, but I gave it my all. The harder I tried to do even more and do it better it seemed it just was not good enough. I was doing things like working off the clock to try to survive, and was even fearful of being caught or questioned for doing that. Finally I was told that my performance had improved, only to find myself given notice of my job being eliminated when Liberty killed the Wausau Insurance brand. I have been unemployed for several months and I know it is is for the best that I no longer have to be treated so poorly there, however it sure was nice having a paycheck and health insurance.

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