June 23, 2011
>Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) Co-sponsors Safe Schools Improvement Act
By Public Policy intern Rebecca Weidler
Most policy advocates in the non-profit community go months—sometimes even years—without ever seeing the results of their day-to-day letter writing, phone calls, Hill meetings, and hour-long strategizing sessions with partner organizations. I knew that my summer internship with GLSEN would be extremely educational and infinitely rewarding, but I never expected that after just three weeks on the job, I would be able to witness an actual policy success and trace this victory back to my work.
I arrived at GLSEN on June 1st, eager to dive into a summer of advocating for safe schools in which no child or young adult faces bullying because of his or her sexual orientation or gender identity. When I said I live and go to school in North Carolina during our first staff meeting that day, Shawn Gaylord, our Director of Public Policy, got excited: “Oh great, you can go with me on a lobbying trip to meet with Senator Hagan’s office next week.”
Of course, I geeked out. Fresh to DC, the thought of getting to meet with policymakers—particularly those representing my state—was like Christmas had come early. Exactly one week later, I was sitting at a table in Senator Hagan’s office talking with her education staffer about why safe schools matter to North Carolinians and how the Safe Schools Improvement Act empowers well-meaning educators to intervene in bullying when they might otherwise hesitate.
Senator Hagan’s education staffer told us that the senator had signed onto another pro-LGBT bill, the Student Nondiscrimination Act, because she had heard from so many constituents urging her to co-sponsor it. As soon as I got back to GLSEN’s office, I started purposefully drafting action alerts for North Carolina. Over the course of the next week, GLSEN sent out emails to numerous different constituencies in North Carolina, urging them to call Senator Hagan and voice the importance of safe schools free of bullying. In addition to this grassroots mobilization, we also reached out to leaders in the business, education, and LGBT communities, asking them to talk with the Senator about the Safe Schools Improvement Act.
At the end of last week, we weren’t sure if we were going to be able to win Senator Hagan’s co-sponsorship. I had heard from one Hill intern that constituent calls had really gone up that week—with the Safe Schools Improvement Act as the subject of the phone calls. Then we heard from someone else that Senator Hagan would vote in favor of the bill, but she would not go so far as to co-sponsor it. I listened to the rumors and speculation with my hopes soaring and then crashing from hour to hour (if you feel like you aren’t sitting close enough to the edge of your seat now that the NBA finals are finished, come on over and hang with us for a few weeks).
Yesterday morning, exactly two weeks after my first visit to the Senate office buildings, I again entered Senator Hagan’s office, this time to go to a weekly breakfast/meet-and-greet for North Carolinians visiting DC. In addition to meeting the Senator, I was hoping to snag a minute to gently promote the Safe Schools Improvement Act and offer her a North Carolina-specific research brief on the state of local school safety.
As soon as I mentioned SSIA, Senator Hagan said, “Oh, I had actually just decided to co-sponsor the Safe Schools Improvement Act!”
Amazing. I’m not kidding you. It was like something out of a Disney Channel Original Movie.
So, flabbergasted, I stood there for a second and then said, “Really?!!” Senator Hagan laughed as she confirmed, “Yes, really!” Overcome with jubilation, I gave Senator Hagan a hug and after thanking her profusely, I practically skipped out of Dirksen Senate Office Building and then rushed to get back to the office and spread the news to everyone. For the rest of the day, the office was energized by the knowledge that we had done what we feared would not happen. Hope bubbled up as we celebrated the very powerful stamp of approval that Senator Hagan would be lending to a bill that could help so many young people finally find peace from the torment that follows them through the halls and even into the classrooms every day.
Today, Senator Hagan’s co-sponsorship has been officially recorded, and the Safe Schools Improvement Act is one step closer to becoming incorporated into the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. There’s still a hard fight ahead, one that might take only a few more months, or maybe one that will take years. However, this week, I realized that all the small tasks we do in the office each day—and all the little phone calls that everyday Americans make—actually do add up to something big. So, I’m going to get back to work writing those letters. If you want to do the same, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org to be put in touch with your representatives.