On August 5, 2010, the Safe Schools Improvement Act (SSIA) was introduced in the Senate by Bob Casey (D-PA). SSIA would amend the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act—which is part of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act—to include bullying and harassment based on a student’s actual or perceived race, color, national original, sex, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or religion in its definition of violence. As such, it represents the first time protections would extend to persons on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Districts would have to notify parents annually of their anti-bullying and harassment policies, as well as set up a grievance process for students and parents to report incidences. Additionally, states would have collect and report to the U.S. Department of Education data on incidences.
SSIA attempts to respond to staggering levels of bullying and harassment in schools. According to a 2005 report, 65% of the 3000 middle and high school students surveyed reported being bullied in school in the past year. According to a 2007 report, 84% of the 6,000 gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgendered students surveyed reported being harassed in school and 61% said they felt unsafe at school due to their sexual orientation. Both studies found anti-bullying policies like those required by SSIA significantly reduced bullying and harassment in schools.
The idea behind SSIA has been around for some time. The current iteration was introduced in the House by Representative Linda Sanchez (D-CA) in January 2009, but its introduction by Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) represents the first time it has made it to the Senate. SSIA follows the introduction of the Student Nondiscrimination Act (SNDA), introduced in the House in January 2010 by Jared Polis (D-CO) and in the Senate by Al Franken (D-MN) in May 2010. SNDA is patterned after title IX and would prohibit discrimination (including harassment) on the basis of real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity in any program or activity receiving federal funds.
Both SSIA and SNDA have broad support from civil rights and education organizations. It seems their only vocal opposition is from groups like Focus on the Family, which has launched a campaign against SSIA by claiming it promotes homosexuality and pro-gay curricula. Senator Casey has responded to Focus on the Family’s campaign against the legislation in a blog post, arguing that “by mischaracterizing the purpose of anti-bullying legislation, Focus on the Family is intentionally ignoring the prevalence of bullying in schools around the country.” And, we would contend, it is perpetuating the consequences of such bullying–from higher incidences of drop outs all the way to bullying- and harassment-related tragedies. It is about time we took action to make our schools safe places for all students. The proposed legislation represents a firm step in that direction.