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Franken says bill would clarify how schools must respond to anti-LGBT bullying

When he took to the Senate floor to reintroduce his LGBT anti-bullying bill, Sen. Al Franken ended up in tears.

Sen. Franken was joined at the Student Non-Discrimination Act introduction by Wendy Walsh, Seth Walsh’s mother.

When he took to the Senate floor to reintroduce his LGBT anti-bullying bill Thursday, Sen. Al Franken ended up in tears. And so did many of those listening to the brief speech in which Franken talked about the death last year of one of his younger constituents.

“Yesterday, Justin Aaberg from Minnesota should have celebrated his 16th birthday with family and friends,” Franken said. “But instead, I know that his family and friends were missing him terribly — are still missing him terribly.”

Aaberg, an accomplished cellist with a ready smile and a freshman at Anoka High School, killed himself last summer at the age of 15. He was gay and had been harassed and bullied because of it, according to his mother and friends, who note that at least one other of the eight district teens who committed suicide was, too.

“No child should have to go through the pain that Justin went through at school,” Franken continued. “It’s time. It’s time that we extend equal rights to LGBT kids.” (Franken’s remarks quoted here are from a transcript of his speech [PDF] as originally prepared; digital audio suggests they were delivered essentially as written.)

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Tammy Aaberg has been outspoken about what she and other critics characterize as official indifference by Anoka-Hennepin Public Schools to an atmosphere that’s hostile to LGBT youth. Teachers and others say the district’s controversial policy of “curricular neutrality” regarding homosexuality gave staff the impression they could not intervene to protect gay students.

District administrators have countered that their investigation turned up no evidence that any of the suicides were related to bullying, or that anyone connected with the schools was aware of any harassment.

In recent months, religious activists who want any mention of homosexuality kept out of school and parents of suicide and bullying victims have packed board meetings in the district, the state’s largest. Administrators have clarified to staff that bullying of any kind will not be tolerated, but continue to insist there is no systemic problem. 

For her part, Aaberg said she has never been contacted by anyone from the district about her son’s death. And a formal request by MinnPost for any report or records created as a part of the investigation was met with a letter from the district asserting that there are no relevant documents.

Franken told the Senate that his bill [PDF] would make it crystal clear how school districts must respond going forward. The measure would bar discrimination in schools on the basis of sexual orientation and hold school districts that turn a blind eye to anti-LGBT bullying or fail to actively work to prevent it liable for harassment.

“I guarantee you that when this bill is passed, nearly every school district in this country is going to go to its lawyer and ask, ‘How do we come into compliance?’” Franken said. “I guarantee you that the U.S. Department of Education will issue regulations, as it has under Title IX, so that schools have guidance in how to protect these kids.

“The goal isn’t for any school to be sued for failing to protect kids from bullying and harassment,” he continued. “The goal is for schools to do all they can to ensure these incidents never happen in the first place.”

Franken was joined in speaking at the reintroduction by Wendy Walsh, the mother of 13-year-old Seth Walsh, a California boy who hung himself in his backyard after being bullied for his perceived sexual orientation.

Franken first introduced the measure last spring, after the beginning of a wave of suicides nationwide by teenaged gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender bullying victims.

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The House version of the bill is sponsored by Rep. Jared Polis, a Colorado Democrat. Currently, the bill has 28 cosponsors in the Senate and 87 cosponsors in the House.

Last year’s version did not enjoy bipartisan support, but momentum seems to be gathering. Earlier this week Sens. Robert Casey, D-Penn., and Mark Kirk, R-Ill., introduced a different anti-bullying law, the Safe Schools Improvement Act. The measure is similar to Franken’s proposed law.

According to a fact sheet circulated by Franken’s, more than one third of lesbian, gay and bisexual youth have attempted suicide. Minnesota LGBT activists say the number of LGBT teens who attempt suicide is not actually statistically higher than in the past. What has increased is the rate at which teens are coming out, and the spotlight being cast on issues such as gay marriage.

Official rhetoric notwithstanding, Anoka-Hennepin administrators and teachers typically do sound genuinely at a loss as to how to protect their students when they find themselves at Ground Zero in the culture wars. If Franken’s bill were passed, they would still report to a socially conservative school board that’s under continual pressure from a vocal segment of the community. But they would have a black-letter law to fall back on.

On Thursday, President Obama also announced a renewed emphasis on stamping out bullying. In addition to supporting the work of a federal task force that includes the U.S. Department of Education, the president announced a joint campaign by the White House, MTV and Facebook.