On February 13, the U.S. Department of Education released a draft of its strategic plan for improving the nation’s education system over the next four years. This plan describes the key policy priorities and goals for the agency and highlights data related to the President’s goal for America to once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by the year 2020. When this draft was released, GLSEN was disappointed to find that the plan did not include any strategic goals designed to support lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students. As we know, students across the country encounter adversity and discrimination due to their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and the Department of Education have taken a leadership role in combatting bullying and discrimination against LGBT students in the past, and we were concerned about the notable absence of goals to further this work. GLSEN partnered with thirty-three other education and civil rights organizations—including the National Association of School Psychologists, National Education Association, National Black Justice Coalition, National Center for Transgender Equality, Japanese American Citizens League, and Family Equality Council—to send a letter to Secretary Duncan and his leadership team. We urged them to continue their commitment to providing LGBT students with safe and supportive school environments by including specific goals related to such efforts in their strategic plan for the next four years. On April 2, the Department of Education responded to our requests and released its final strategic plan, which included new commitments to LGBT students. Specifically, the Department updated the list of characteristics in its goal to “ensure and promote effective educational opportunities and safe and healthy learning environments for all students regardless of race, ethnicity, national origin, age, sex, disability, language, and socioeconomic status” to also include “sexual orientation” and “gender identity.” This is important because we know that students are often placed at a disadvantage in school because of their actual or perceived sexual orientation. In addition, the Department updated its goal for the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) to enforce federal civil rights protections in schools to include “gender-based harassment and sex-stereotyping.” Under Assistant Secretary Russlynn Ali’s leadership, OCR has used existing federal protections to combat harassment and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and it is crucial that the Department remain committed to doing so. All students, regardless of individual characteristics, deserve to feel safe and secure at school. Such security often plays a critical role in determining students’ classroom success, and far too often LGBT students are not afforded the same protections that other students enjoy. We are very happy that Secretary Duncan and the Department of Education recognized the challenge we face and committed to work toward creating safe and supportive environments for all students in the United States. Find the strategic plan here: http://www2.ed.gov/about/reports/strat/plan2011-14/plan-2011.pdf
Nearly half a century ago, Alabama Governor George Wallace stood in a schoolhouse door and told U.S. Justice Department officials that his state Constitution forbade two black students from entering. With a little coaxing from the National Guard, Governor Wallace stood down and the students were admitted.
Today, Governor Robert Bentley symbolically stands in front of school doors across the state telling thousands of students that they, too, are unwelcome in Alabama schools, this time because of their immigration status.
Time and time again, courts have found that the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution gives the federal government final authority over immigration matters in this country. In 1982, the Supreme Court ruled that states cannot deny a free public education to undocumented immigrants.
Yet earlier this year, Alabama passed the so-called Beason-Hammon Alabama Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act, ordering school officials to track the immigration status of students and their parents. On September 29, when a federal judge allowed the law to go into effect, over 2,000 Alabama students were pulled out of school overnight.
Parents feared that school administrators and employees would suddenly act as immigration agents resulting in the exodus.
Fortunately, a federal judge has temporarily enjoined the portion of the Beason-Hammon Act which would require public schools to determine the immigration status of students, but several other equally damaging aspects of the law remain in effect.
In the wake of the Beason-Hammon Act coming into effect, the U.S. Justice Department Justice Department officials are monitoring for bullying incidents linked to the law. According to Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Thomas Perez, the Department has heard a number of reports of increases in bullying across Alabama.
Ironically, efforts are currently being made to pass an enumerated anti-bullying bill in Alabama that would protect students from bullying, harassment, and intimidation based on race, sex, religion, national origin, disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity. GLSEN strongly supports these efforts and commends Alabama state Rep. Patricia Todd on the introduction of this bill.
At the same time, it is very unfortunate that the Beason-Hammon Act is countering efforts to make Alabama schools safer.
What all children—regardless of immigration status—need to succeed is an education in a safe and supportive environment. Over time, this nation has made a great deal of progress toward making sure each child receives just that. It is unfortunate that Alabama lawmakers would try to impede that progress.
One can only hope that this president’s Justice Department has the same success that President Kennedy’s did forty-eight years ago, and that 2,000 children in Alabama will be able to return to school.