On Tuesday, March 20, at the White House Conference on Safe Schools and Communities held at the University of Texas at Arlington, Attorney General Eric Holder and White House Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett both walked up to the line of an endorsement for the Student Non-Discrimination Act (SNDA). Holder, echoing the remarks of Jarrett, said that the Obama administration "strongly supports the goals" of SNDA, characterizing it as a critical next step that needs to be taken to ensure the continued progress of the LGBT community, and, in this case, students who are or are presumed to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) in our nation's public K-12 schools.
The Student Non-Discrimination Act would provide LGBT students, and those perceived to be LGBT, with long-overdue, much-needed, explicit federal protections by establishing a comprehensive prohibition against discrimination and harassment in all public elementary and secondary schools across the country based on a student's actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.
While the recent conference in Texas was not the first time that administration officials have expressed support for the goals of SNDA, the comments of Holder and Jarrett are noteworthy because they came not in response to a question from a member of Congress or a reporter, but affirmatively in their remarks to the conference attendees. Additionally, these two officials specifically singled out SNDA for recognition, sending a clear message about the central importance of this legislation to the LGBT community, and to LGBT youth and students in particular.
Most people reading the remarks of Holder and Jarrett about "strongly supporting the goals" of SNDA would not see a distinction between what has been said and a full endorsement; however, there is, and the time has come for the Obama administration to give its full backing and support to SNDA. Earlier this month, a coalition of 70 national and state organizations sent a letter to President Obama specifically urging him to publicly support and endorse SNDA.
One of the most critical reasons why the administration needs to endorse SNDA is Congress. An endorsement and public support from President Obama and his administration would make clear to all members of Congress what the administration views as a necessary federal legislative solution to the serious problem of anti-LGBT discrimination and harassment in our nation's public schools. Saying that you support the goals of SNDA is a great first step, but it is not a replacement for an actual endorsement.
It is simply unfathomable that, in the year 2012, there is a not a federal civil rights law that specifically protects LGBT students on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity. There is a clear and compelling need for such a law. A 2009 study by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) of more than 7,000 LGBT middle and high school students across the U.S. found that nine out of 10 reported experiencing harassment at their school within the past year based on their sexual orientation or gender identity, and two thirds said they felt unsafe at school because of who they are. Nearly on -third skipped at least one day of school within the previous month because of concerns for their safety. Additionally, LGBT youth are at a significantly increased risk for suicide related to mental health issues that often arise from poor treatment and discrimination in schools.
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 Student Non-Discrimination Act would do just that. Nearly 50 years of civil rights history clearly demonstrate that laws similar to the proposed Student Non-Discrimination Act are effective in preventing discrimination and harassment from occurring in the first place by prompting schools to take proactive steps to ensure a safe and supportive learning environment for all students who are in their care.
SNDA would have a profound impact in improving the lives of LGBT students. And, critically important to an organization like the ACLU, it would do so in a way that preserves the right of all students to speak freely, while protecting the right of all students to benefit equally from a public education. As Jarrett said in her remarks, SNDA "reflects a simple fact: that LGBT students have the same right as every other student to go to school in an environment free of discrimination and harassment."
The time has come for the Obama administration to fully endorse and support this critically important and long-overdue legislation.