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Preventing Tragedy in Our Schools

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Over the past year, the national spotlight has focused on the deeply tragic stories of young people who were so severely bullied based on their real or perceived sexual orientation that they took the desperate step of ending their own lives.

These tragedies were entirely preventable. Schools were not protecting these children -- some as young as 11-years-old. For them, school was not the safe place of learning and growth that it should be, but a place of anguish and fear.

Justin Aaberg was a gay high school student who lived in Anoka, Minnesota. He played the cello and his mom says he always had a smile on his face. But Justin was gay, and kids bullied him at school. This summer, he hanged himself.

Carl Walker Hoover was tormented daily at his Massachusetts school for "acting gay." His mother talked to teachers and administrators, demanding action, but the situation didn't improve. Carl was only 11 years old when he killed himself this April.

Asher Brown was a straight-A student at his Texas school. After being bullied for years -- bullying that included other students forcing him to simulate sex acts during their gym class -- Asher killed himself last month. He was in 8th grade.

There are many more stories that have same ending. To those of us who haven't been in school recently, it may be hard for us to see these as anything but a string of isolated incidents. But that couldn't be farther from the truth. The Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) surveyed more than 7,000 middle and high school students last year and found that nearly 9 in 10 lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students had experienced harassment at school and nearly two-thirds felt unsafe because of their sexual orientation. States that gather data on the health risks faced by LGBT students also show that they are consistently more likely than their heterosexual peers to face violence at school and attempt suicide.

We are both working to turn this situation around by making schools safe for LGBT students. To that end, the Human Rights Campaign is working with schools across the country to implement Welcoming Schools -- a resource to help schools embrace family diversity, avoid gender stereotyping and end name-calling and bullying. If our schools taught children to respect their differences at an early age and school personnel were prepared to respond to bullying, we might have been able to avoid the kind of tragedy that recently happened at Rutgers University. Just a few days ago, Freshman Tyler Clementi jumped off a bridge to his death after his roommate allegedly secretly filmed him in a sexual encounter with another man.

But we also need strong laws in place to prevent the harassment of LGBT students. That is why we need to pass the Student Non-Discrimination Act, introduced by Senator Franken. This critical legislation would forbid schools from discriminating against or ignoring the harassment of students based on actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. The bill would also provide meaningful remedies for such discrimination, modeled on Title IX.

Some view this epidemic of suicides as a wake-up call and are looking for ways to prevent future tragedies. We firmly believe that if schools work to create positive cultures and if Congress passes the Student Non-Discrimination Act, those steps will be a huge stride forward in protecting LGBT students from the bullying and harassment that is all too common in schools today.

After he hanged himself, Justin Aaberg's mother started talking with other LGBT youth to understand why her son decided to take his own life. "These kids, they just hate themselves," she told a local radio station. "They literally feel like they want to die." It is inexcusable that toxic school environments have been contributing to the deaths of innocent children. We must act now to prevent these tragedies.

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