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Enumeration not the only policy for protecting LGBT students

By |2009-03-05T09:00:00-05:00March 5th, 2009|News|

by Bernadette Brown

Triangle Foundation appreciates this opportunity to reiterate our support of Matt’s Safe Schools Law. Triangle is a member of the Michigan Safe Schools Coalition, along with many important allies. Triangle consulted with numerous national and local advocates on the creation of safe schools for LGBT youth, including the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, which is considered to be the leading national education organization in this respect. GLSEN compiled much of the research on the importance of enumeration (a listing of protected characteristics) in safe schools legislation.

While Triangle acknowledges that enumeration is ideal, we also recognize that it takes more than enumeration to protect LGBT children from bullying and harassment.
Two versions of Matt’s Law are currently under consideration in the Michigan Senate, one with enumeration and one without. The enumerated version contains a definition of bullying which includes characteristics that are often the motivation for bullies, such as race, sexual orientation and gender identity. The non-enumerated version contains a definition of bullying which does not detail the characteristics, but states that bullying and harassment include conduct that “is reasonably perceived to be motivated by animus or by an actual or perceived characteristic.”
Even with an enumerated law, there is no guarantee that LGBT students will be or feel safer. California has an enumerated law and LGBT leadership in that state is having difficulty with its implementation and enforcement. A 2007 GLSEN survey uncovered that only 26 percent of California students reported that their school has a compliant policy, and this is the state where 15-year-old Lawrence King was murdered in school. The survey also found that 90 percent of LGBT students regularly heard other students make homophobic remarks and 40 percent of LGBT students reported being physically harassed because of their sexual orientation, and 29 percent because of their gender expression. In a 2005 survey of Michigan LGBT students, 35 percent reported being physically harassed because of their sexual orientation and 23 percent due to gender expression.
In 2007, Iowa enacted an enumerated law and about 50 percent of their students report that their schools enforce it. The Iowa Pride Network credits this moderate success, in part, to their statewide Gay-Straight Alliance campaign, which preceded the introduction of the law, and tripled that state’s number of GSAs from 20 to over 60 in three years. It was the relationships that they cultivated with the schools by establishing GSAs that made the law easier to implement at the local levels.
If Matt’s Law is enacted without specific enumeration, we have a number of tools that can be utilized to aid in the protection of LGBT students.
It’s important to note that the non-enumerated version does not specifically exclude LGBT students, unlike Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, which is enumerated and specifically excludes the LGBT community. Also, the definition of bullying in this version clearly provides protection, and would allow a parent to petition the school for redress for any grievance that is causing harm to the student.
Additionally, in 2006, the Michigan State Board of Education adopted a comprehensive, LGBT-inclusive Model Anti-Bullying Policy.
We cannot underestimate the support established for LGBT students by this powerful government agency. If Matt’s Law is enacted, it will be the responsibility of the LGBT and allied communities to reach out to all school districts and encourage them to adopt a comprehensive policy. The Eychaner Foundation in Des Moines found that most Iowa school districts adopted the sample policies distributed by the Iowa Association of School Boards. Furthermore, due to the unique features of our legislation and coalition building, a respectable organization such as GLSEN continues to work with the MSSC.
The legislative process is not generally an easy one, and laws are only as good as the human beings who must enforce them.
Triangle extends our gratitude to the likely – and unlikely – allies who continue to devote considerable resources to creating safe schools for all children. We commend the many parents whose children are tragic casualties of bullying, who continue to show up in Lansing and fight for Matt’s Law and who view any further delay in the passage of this legislation as an unnecessary threat to the lives of all children. Our community should value these partnerships as well, as these allies will continue to support our community as we strive for equality in other areas of the law.

About the Author:

BTL Staff
Between The Lines has been publishing LGBTQ-related content in Southeast Michigan since the early '90s. This year marks the publication's 27th anniversary.