WASHINGTON — On the Senate floor Monday afternoon, Sen. Al Franken stood next to a photo of Justin Aaberg, a gay Anoka teenager who committed suicide in 2010. After his death, Franken said, “his mother learned from Justin’s friends and from messages he left before his death that he had been the victim of incessant bullying at school.” In total, the senator spoke about three American boys who took their own lives after being harassed because of their sexual orientation.
That emotional floor speech came after years of work on a piece of legislation close to the hearts of Franken, President Obama and a host of politicians and activists: the Student Non-Discrimination Act (SNDA). The law aims to enshrine into law anti-discrimination protections for LGBT students in public schools. On Tuesday afternoon, it is expected to get a vote in the full Senate for the first time ever.
Franken first introduced SNDA unsuccessfully in 2010 as a stand-alone bill. Now, he is tying its fortunes to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act — the massive federal K-12 education law also called No Child Left Behind which is nearing a re-authorization that’s eight years overdue.
Franken and LGBT advocates say that SNDA simply extends current law — which covers discrimination based on race, disability, gender and national origin — to sexual orientation and gender identity. Broadly, that means schools would be prohibited from excluding LGBT students from activities or services other students enjoy, or turning a blind eye to student bullying or teacher harassment. Like the landmark Title IX provision for sex-based discrimination, SNDA is enforced by linking compliance to federal funding for schools.
In his floor speech, Franken said the bullying of LGBT students had reached “epidemic proportions,” saying that 75% of LGBT students report verbal harassment at school and 35% report physical violence. Eighteen states, including Minnesota, have anti-bullying statutes which specifically extend protections to LGBT students.
Objections to SNDA, and laws like it, have centered around a perceived ambiguity of the text. In 2010, when it was first introduced, Cato Institute scholar Neal McCluskey said it would curtail free speech. “The definition of harassment could be broadly interpreted that anybody who expressed a totally legitimate opinion about homosexual behavior could be made illegal,” he said.
That was five years ago, but nevertheless, SNDA still hasn’t gained much traction among conservatives, particularly those in the House. Earlier this year, when House members were marking up their education bill in committee, SNDA was struck from consideration on a party line vote. Franken successfully attached SNDA as an amendment onto the Senate’s education reform bill.
That bill is the product of careful bipartisan compromise from the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions — of which Franken is a member — and it is expected to receive broad support. Despite the House GOP’s apparent opposition, Franken is confident that SNDA has solid support that would carry through to a bicameral, bipartisan conference committee tasked with hammering out the education package once both chambers have passed bills. He cited the success of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act — an LGBT workplace protection law — which passed the Senate with some GOP support in 2013.
Speaking with MinnPost after his speech Monday afternoon, Franken said, “I feel like it’s my responsibility” to help LGBT kids. “This is an education bill…it’s about doing everything we can to make sure that kids get out of school with the tools they need. It’s hard to do that if you’re afraid.”