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Washington Blade - House Lawmakers Speak Out for LGBT-inclusive Education Bill

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By Chris Johnson

House lawmakers spoke out this week in favor of legislation aimed at prohibiting the bullying and harassment of LGBT students as Republican lawmakers refused a vote on such a measure as part of an education reform bill.

The lawmakers, including gay Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), spoke in favor of an amendment akin to the Student Non-Discrimination Act on Wednesday during a House Rules Committee hearing for an education reform bill known as the Student Success Act and on the House floor Thursday when the rule for the bill was debated.

During the rules committee hearing, Polis said the Student Non-Discrimination Act is necessary -- even with other options on the table like school of choice -- because some students have only one choice for a school in certain places in the country.

"If you come from a small town with a thousand families, you have a school, you go there, and it's tough," Polis said. "It might be tough to grow up if you're the only African-American family in town, it might be tough to grow up if you're the only gay kid in town, it might be tough to grow up if you're the only Catholic in town, or the only Muslim or the only Jew in town."

During the hearing, Polis offered a proposal to allow an amendment akin to the Student Non-Discrimination Act to come up on the House floor, but that proposal was defeated 5-7 largely along party lines in the GOP-controlled panel.

The only Republican in committee to vote in favor of the proposal was Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), who's an original co-sponsor of the legislation and also spoke out in favor of the bill in committee. She's among 155 co-sponsors of the bill in the House.

"Through the years, we have seen a lot of bullying taking place at our schools, and LGBT students are particularly vulnerable to education and harassment in our education system," Ros-Lehtinen said. "They currently lack the protections that would prohibit this dreadful behavior."

Modeled after Title IX of the Education Amendments, the Student Non-Discrimination Act establishes sexual orientation and gender identity as a protected class and prohibits schools from discriminating against any student based on actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. The discrimination includes allowing bullying against them.

Brad Jacklin, executive director of the LGBT Equality Caucus, said the proposal that Polis submitted to the Rules Committee was virtually the same as the Student Non-Discrimination Act, although a minor change was made related to cause of action to make the amendment budget neutral.

The next day on the House floor, a number of lawmakers joined Polis in speaking out in favor of the Student Non-Discrimination Act, including Reps. Rob Andrews (D-N.J.), Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and David Cicilline (D-R.I.).

Cicilline said he opposes the education bill as a whole because it "fails students in so many ways it's difficult to know where to begin," but also because it fails to provide protections for LGBT students.

"The federal government has a responsibility, Mr. Speaker, to do all that we can do to ensure the safest and best possible environment in which students can learn," Cicilline said. "When students are bullied and harassed because of who they are, they're denied the opportunity to achieve their full potential."

Despite these objections, the House approved on Friday the education reform bill by a vote of 221-207 after two days of debate.

The Senate version of education reform legislation, known as the Strengthening America's Schools Act, includes the Student Non-Discrimination Act as well as another anti-bullying bill known as the Safe Schools Improvement Act. In June, the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee reported out the legislation on a party-line 12-10 vote. A Senate floor vote in expected this fall.

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