WASHINGTON - After a rash of suicides linked to bullying in public schools, gay and lesbian students are punching back like never before.
Armed with both lawsuits and legislation, they’re finding some powerful allies as they demand an end to the harassment.
In the White House, they’ve won backing from President Barack Obama, who said last month that he wasn’t immune from harassment while growing up because of his “big ears and the name that I have.”
On Capitol Hill, they’ve got support from at least 23 Democratic senators – including Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray from Washington state – who are promoting anti-bullying legislation.
And perhaps most importantly, they’ve found help from the U.S. Department of Education, which now regards school bullying as a civil rights issue. As a result, schools have been warned that if they don’t take bullying seriously and work harder to protect students, they could lose their federal aid and face prosecution.
All of this is good news for Maggie Davidson, a 15-year-old freshman at Redmond Junior High School, who came to Washington, D.C., in late March to lobby members of Congress to crack down on bullying.
“It’s really amazing to see how a group of people who have been so oppressed for so many years is finally taking a stand for themselves,” she said.
Davidson was one of 40 participants from 29 states (and the only one from Washington state) who went door-to-door on Capitol Hill, sharing their personal stories with members of Congress and staffers. It was her first time in Washington, D.C.
“It was definitely intimidating, but it was empowering at the same time,” said Davidson, who is bisexual. “This is important to me because I think that schools should be a place where all kids feel safe. The number one priority of a school should be to provide kids with an education, and nothing should get in the way of that.”
Many school officials now fear that it will be much easier to sue them after the U.S. Department of Education told them last fall that they’re required under civil rights laws to prevent harassment based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
It’s causing something of a backlash.
The bullying issue now “has become the most politicized it has ever become in history,” said Ken Trump, president of the Cleveland-based National School Safety and Security Services. He called it “the political prostitution of school safety,” aimed at trying to get protections for sexual orientation and gender identification written into federal law, something gay-rights backers have been unable to do in Congress.
“This is a back-door attempt to create a protected class,” Trump said.
Other critics regard the growing anti-bullying campaigns as an attempt to silence opponents.
“There is a real danger that anti-bullying policies will be used to curtail any speech in schools critical of homosexuality,” said Peter LaBarbera, president of a group called Americans For Truth About Homosexuality.
He said schools must protect all children, “including those confused about their sexual or gender identity.” But he added: “They must never use bullying prevention to engage in one-sided advocacy about homosexuality, thereby discriminating against Christian, Jewish and Muslim students who believe homosexual practice is wrong.”
Nearly 90 percent of middle and high school gay and lesbian students have experienced harassment, and nearly two-thirds of them have felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation, according to a survey by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network.
One of them, Russell Dickerson III, took his case to a federal court in Tacoma, aided by the American Civil Liberties Union. He’s suing the Aberdeen School District for allegedly doing nothing to stop years of harassment, which he said left him with post-traumatic stress disorder and high blood pressure at age 14.
Dickerson, now 20, said he was called a “faggot,” and that he found notes in his locker with vicious insults, and that students tripped him in the cafeteria and threw food at him. In one incident, he said, three students pushed him to the floor and smashed a raw egg on his head, but only one student was disciplined.
Last September, the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender civil rights organization, reacted to a string of suicides by calling on the Obama administration to speak out and to push all schools to implement anti-bullying policies.
The suicides included a 13-year-old California boy who after months of bullying hanged himself from a tree outside his home this week, a 15-year-old Indiana boy who hanged himself after being called a “fag” over and over again, and a Rutgers University freshman who jumped off a bridge after his roommate secretly recorded him with another male student.
The bullying issue has been a hot one in statehouses, with 11 states already passing anti-bullying laws based on sexual orientation and gender identity: Washington, North Carolina, California, Arkansas, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Oregon and Vermont.
And the issue has been getting plenty of attention in Washington as of late, too.
In the Senate, two anti-bullying bills are under consideration.
The first, called the Safe Schools Improvement Act, would require schools that receive federal funds to adopt codes of conduct prohibiting bullying and harassment based on a student’s sexual orientation or gender identity. It would also require states to report incidences of bullying and harassment to the federal government.
The second, called the Student Non-Discrimination Act, would make discrimination in schools based on sexual orientation or gender identity illegal.
Last month, the president hosted the first-ever White House conference on bullying prevention, inviting participants from across the nation.
“If there’s one goal of this conference, it’s to dispel the myth that bullying is just a harmless rite of passage of an inevitable part of growing up,” Obama said. “It’s not.”
Davidson said she’s feeling optimistic these days, particularly with the president taking up her cause.
“He’s the power over everyone in the country, and he obviously has a lot of say in what goes on,” she said. “So if he stands for something, then it’s likely a lot of other people will follow in his footsteps.”
And after spending four days in Washington, D.C., Davidson went back home, fired up and ready to try to organize anti-bullying activities at her school.
After all, she said, too much is at stake to remain silent.
“Primary education and secondary education is really what gives you the platform for the rest of your life,” Davidson said. “And if you miss out on that because kids are harassing you, you don’t have as strong of a foundation to build up on.”
Rob Hotakainen: 202-383-6000