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We have to fight to protect children’s rights

The unfortunate reality is we need legal protections to stop discrimination of targeted groups.

Bullies target those they see as different, feel superior to, and feel power over, and every child has a right to be safe and to learn and prosper emotionally, psychologically, and socially. But history shows that we need to fight hard for human rights. Recent legislation by almost all states that compels schools to protect students from bullying acknowledges the power of legal remedies to bring about change. This is especially true in the case of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender students who are bullied more than any other group and are not yet protected by civil rights legislation.

In my book, Story Power: Breathing Life Into History,  I included a timeline of women’s rights to illustrate their journey. Progress was painfully slow until laws were finally enacted that gave women equal rights in all areas of their lives. If you ever doubted the value of legislation that protects targeted groups from discrimination, read through this timeline.

My Timeline of the History of Women’s Rights in America

Put yourself on the timeline and see where you fit in the legal evolution of women’s rights.

(This timeline is not all inclusive. There are many other milestones in women’s history.)

1776            Declaration of  Independence claims all men are created equal.

1789            US Constitution ratified and goes into effect.

1848            1st Women’s Rights Convention held in Seneca Falls, New York.

1861            The American Civil War begins – fight for women’s rights put on hold.

1865            Civil War ends; Reconstruction begins.

1866            Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony form the American Equal Rights Association dedicated to the goal of universal suffrage.

1868             14th Amendment to the US Constitution gives all male citizens the right to vote.

1870             15th Amendment to the US Constitution says the right to vote shall not be denied or abridged on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. (Sex not included)

1878             The Woman Suffrage Amendment is first introduced in the US Congress: “Equality of  rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”

1893             New Zealand first country to give women right to vote.

1903             National Women’s Trade Union established for better working conditions.

1917             Russia gives women right to vote.

1919             My father is born.

1920            19th Amendment gives US women right to vote; National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) becomes the League of Women Voters.

1921            My mother is born.

1923            The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) first proposed to Congress.

1940-45      WWII Propaganda campaign to get women to work in typically male jobs.

1951             I’m born.

1956            Number of women in the work force up from 8.5 million in 1947 to almost 13 million.

1959             American Medical Association sanctions birth control for the first time.

1960            FDA approves “the pill.”

1963            President’s “Commission on Status of Women” finds women discriminated against in almost all aspects of US life.

1964            Title VII Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination in employment by race or gender.

1970             Congress approves the Equal Rights Amendment, first step toward adoption.

1972             ERA sent to states for ratification.

Title IX becomes law: no one can be discriminated against based on their sex in education programs and activities that receive federal financial assistance.

1973             Rowe v. Wade – women’s right to choose abortion – upheld by US Supreme Court.

1977             My first child is born.

1976             Nebraska adopts the first law making it illegal for a husband to rape his wife.

1979             My second child is born.

1986            Supreme Court rules sexual harassment on the job is sex discrimination.

1992             American Association of University Women release their report, “How Schools Shortchange Girls.”

1993             Violence Against Women Act passes: acknowledges domestic violence and sexual assault as crimes.

2001            American Association of University Women releases “Beyond the ‘Gender Wars’: A conversation about girls, boys, and education.”

2009            Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act passed.

2012             Affordable Care Act requires insurance plans to include coverage for birth control without a co-pay.

GOP and Democratic platforms differ on contraception and abortion.

ERA not yet ratified by a three-fourths majority of US states.

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Public schools are for every child.

I cherish the concept of a free and public education for all children.

It intends, at least on paper, to provide each child with an opportunity to become a successful, self-sufficient adult and citizen. Theoretically, an educational system open to all is a way to ensure that life circumstances – who you are, where you were born, the educational level of your parents, and your social and economic standing – do not determine your future chances for a fulfilling life. This is the heart of a meritocracy, a system in which advancement in society is based on individual ability or achievement, not on wealth or birthright. The premise is a simple one: the choices you make, especially how hard you work in school, decide your future.

So on paper a meritocracy in the form of a public school sounds ideal. Most Americans believe we have such a system, and that it serves everyone equally and well. But considering the realities of American society, this was and still is naïve. The premise is fundamentally flawed because the playing field was not and is not level, and the opportunities were not and are not equal or equitable.

Throughout our history, different levels of government and powerful people were able to control who went to a certain school, who went to school at all, and even to make it illegal to teach slave children how to read and write. Classmates were selected and rejected by gender, race, ethnicity, mental ability, and behavior. With groups separated into somewhat homogenous groups, the need to learn tolerance and acceptance of those we saw as different or of a lesser status or ability was minimized. This segregation maintained a status quo of separate classes – the privileged and under-privileged, the powerful and powerless – and undermined the concept that schools and society were meritocracies.

Public education policies and laws did evolve over time as people spoke out forcefully about human rights issues and wrongs were corrected. Yet the system is still not perfect: education funded according to the tax base of each district results in widely disparate per pupil expenditures that favor the well-to-do and economically healthy areas, and bias and discrimination against certain groups influence the assessment of individual potential, academic expectations, opportunities available, discipline used, and hopes for the future.

But people and governments may no longer intentionally segregate schools or classrooms by race or social status and children with special learning and behavioral needs now have the right to a placement in the least restrictive learning environment. Every child has the right to a free and appropriate public education regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, and sexual orientation. And they all have our promise that they will be treated respectfully by the adults and students in their school.

There are competing cultural forces at work that again challenge the basic premise of schools as a meritocracy, where all are welcome and offered the same opportunities. The influence of religion in politics and on social issues and public policy has grown at the same time the federal government, individual states, and local school boards and communities have made a moral and legal commitment to build public schools that are safe havens. In these schools, discrimination and violence of any kind, including exclusion, bullying, and harassment, are not tolerated by anyone, against anyone, or for any reason.

This raises the question of the role of religious beliefs in an institution that by law and mandate must welcome, teach, and protect every child who comes to the schoolhouse door. May students deny basic human rights to those who do not share or reflect their religious beliefs, especially in the case of sexual identity? Are students whose religion teaches that homosexuality is immoral excused from showing respect and tolerance toward their gay, lesbian, transgender and bi-sexual peers? Can they discriminate against, refuse to work with, or bully students they do not approve of?

I believe the answer is no, they may not, the same way a student may not let his personal or his parents’ beliefs about race, ethnicity, political leanings, etc. affect how he treats his classmates. The code of conduct for proper behavior applies to everyone.

The strength of the public school system of the 21st century is that it more clearly guarantees that every child can expect the school to protect his rights regardless of perceived or real differences, or religious or social beliefs held by others. This is how we keep the public separate from the private, the secular separate from the sectarian, and public schools open and welcoming to the everyone.

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.