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NJ Anti-Bullying Bill Named for Student

by Kilian Melloy
Friday Nov 19, 2010
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Lawmakers from both the Senate and the House of Representatives have taken action to address anti-gay bullying targeting students. A bill introduced by Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, the Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act, would make it mandatory for colleges to adopt anti-harassment policies. In the House, Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) sponsored a bill with the same language, the Associated Press reported on Nov. 18. The legislation would apply to all colleges and universities that receive funds from the federal government.

"While there is no way to eliminate the cruelty that some students choose to inflict on their peers, there should be a clear code of conduct that prohibits harassment," Lautenberg said. Added the senator, "The tragic impact of bullying on college campuses has damaged too many young adults, and it is time for our college to put policies on the books that would protect students from harassment," reported Wyckoff Patch on Nov. 19.

Tyler Clementi jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge in September. Only days before his suicide, Clementi’s roommate had used a webcam to spy on Clementi as he and another man engaged in an intimate encounter. The roommate posted messages about the incident online and invited others to watch a second encounter that he attempted to monitor. Clementi, however, disabled the webcam and prevented further spying.

But despite that small victory, Clementi posted a suicide note on Facebook on Sept. 22 and jumped into the Hudson River. His death marked another tragedy in an ongoing crisis of teens who have recently taking their own lives after enduring anti-gay bullying and harassment.

The young man’s family issued a statement about the proposed legislation, saying, "The family appreciates the courtesy extended to them during the drafting of the bill, and hopes that the legislation, if enacted, will improve the well-being and safety of America’s college students," the AP reported. The statement went on to say, "The Clementi family is humbled and gratified that the loss of their son, however painful for them, has inspired nationwide discussion and awareness of the need for a renewal of values of respect for human dignity and personal privacy, particularly for young people in this time of rapidly evolving technology."

In May, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) introduced similar legislation to extend federal protections to students facing bullying on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, and other factors. "Our nation’s civil rights laws protect our children from bullying due to race, sex, religion, disability and national origin," noted Franken. "My proposal corrects a glaring injustice and extends these protections to our gay and lesbian students who need them just as badly."

In addition to criminalizing anti-gay harassment and violence at school, Franken’s bill provides penalties for schools that do nothing when its students are being bullied. Under the bill’s provisions, standing by and doing nothing while GLBT kids are attacked will mean a loss of federal funds. The bill also forbids discrimination by the schools themselves. Franken’s measure has garnered the support of 22 co-sponsors.

But religiously motivated foes of anti-bullying programs have only stepped up pressure to derail efforts at making schools safer, claiming that Christians who believe gays are "sinners" are being sidelined and "belittled." Anti-gay group Focus on the Family told the Denver Post in August that as society in general--and public schools--begin to comprehend that gays and lesbians are a normal and natural part of human diversity, anti-gay religious views may be shunted aside and no longer hold sway in the classroom.

"We feel more and more that activists are being deceptive in using anti-bullying rhetoric to introduce their viewpoints, while the viewpoint of Christian students and parents are increasingly belittled," the FOF’s education expert, Candi Cushman, said.

The head of the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN), Eliza Byard, told the Denver Post that Focus on the Family had it partially right. "Yes, we want LGBT students afforded full respect," Byard acknowledged, going on to say, "Bullying is a serious public health crisis in this country, according to no less an authority than the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services."

A recent GLSEN report, the 2009 National School Climate Survey, noted that the overwhelming majority of students had heard--or been subjected to--anti-gay slurs from their peers, or even from teachers and staff. "The 2009 survey of 7,261 middle and high school students found that at school nearly 9 out of 10 LGBT students experienced harassment at school in the past year and nearly two-thirds felt unsafe because of their sexual orientation," the report said. "Nearly a third of LGBT students skipped at least one day of school in the past month because of safety concerns.

"An analysis of National School Climate Survey data over 10 years showed that since 1999 there has been a decreasing trend in the frequency of
hearing homophobic remarks," the report continued; "however, LGBT students’ experiences with more severe forms of bullying and harassment have remained relatively constant."

Though much of the media attention on anti-gay bullying and its youthful victims has focused on middle and high schoolers, a recent study showed that college life is often just as fraught with anti-gay prejudice and harassment. Campus Pride commissioned the study; that group’s executive director, Shane Windmeyer, noted that at present, only 600 colleges and universities have anti-discrimination policies that cover sexual minorities. Only one-third of those colleges cover gender expression and gender identity.

"There’s a lot of work to be done," Windmeyer told EDGE. "We have to applaud the efforts that have been made the last 10 years on these few campuses. They’ve made great strides in creating a safe environment. But they represent a tiny sliver of the colleges out there."

Though the subject of bullying has received considerable media attention of late, many bullying victims never speak up--or, if they do, they may find that the problem only gets worse, a Nov. 19 Fox News article said. That discourages them from speaking up again, according to the University of Nebraska’s Susan Swearer. "Kids will tell us, ’I told what was going on and nothing happened,’ or ’I told what was going on and it got worse,’ " Swearer told Fox News. "So adult reaction to the bullying that’s taking place is really critical."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor, writing about film, theater, food and drink, and travel, as well as contributing a column. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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