WASHINGTON — After a rash of suicides linked to bullying in public schools, gay and lesbian students are punching back as never before. Armed with lawsuits and legislation, they're finding powerful allies as they demand an end to the harassment.
In the White House, they've won backing from President Barack Obama, and on Capitol Hill, they have support from at least 23 Democratic senators who are promoting anti-bullying legislation.
Perhaps most importantly, they've found help from the U.S. Department of Education, which now regards school bullying as a civil rights issue. As a result, schools have been warned that if they don't take bullying seriously and work harder to protect students, they could lose their federal aid and face prosecution.
All this is good news for Maggie Davidson, a 15-year-old bisexual freshman at Redmond (Wash.) Junior High School who came to Washington last week to lobby members of Congress to crack down on bullying.
"It's really amazing to see how a group of people who have been so oppressed for so many years is finally taking a stand for themselves," she said.
Maggie was one of 40 participants from 29 states who went door-to-door on Capitol Hill last week, sharing their personal stories with members of Congress and staffers. It was her first time in Washington.
"It was definitely intimidating, but it was empowering at the same time," she said. "This is important to me because I think that schools should be a place where all kids feel safe. The number one priority of a school should be to provide kids with an education, and nothing should get in the way of that."
Many school officials, however, fear that it will be much easier to sue them after the Department of Education told them last fall that they're required under civil rights laws to prevent harassment based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
It's causing something of a backlash.
The bullying issue "has become the most politicized it has ever become in history," said Ken Trump, the president of Cleveland-based National School Safety and Security Services, a consulting firm. He called it "the political prostitution of school safety," aimed at trying to get protections for sexual orientation and gender identification written into federal law, something that gay-rights backers have been unable to do in Congress.
"This is a back-door attempt to create a protected class," Trump said.
Other critics regard the growing anti-bullying campaigns as an attempt to silence opponents.
"There is a real danger that anti-bullying policies will be used to curtail any speech in schools critical of homosexuality," said Peter LaBarbera, the president of a group called Americans For Truth About Homosexuality, which opposes gay rights.
He said schools must protect all children, "including those confused about their sexual or gender identity." But he added: "They must never use bullying prevention to engage in one-sided advocacy about homosexuality, thereby discriminating against Christian, Jewish and Muslim students who believe homosexual practice is wrong."
Nearly 90 percent of middle and high school gay and lesbian students have experienced harassment, and nearly two-thirds of them have felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation, according to a survey by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, an advocacy group.
One of them, Russell Dickerson III, took his case to a federal court in Tacoma, Wash., aided by the American Civil Liberties Union. He's suing the Aberdeen, Wash., school district, charging that it did nothing to stop years of harassment, which left him with post-traumatic stress disorder and high blood pressure at age 14.
Dickerson, who's now 20, said he was called a "faggot," that he found notes in his locker with vicious insults and that students tripped him in the cafeteria and threw food at him. In one incident, he said, three students pushed him to the floor and smashed a raw egg on his head. Only one of the three students was disciplined.
Last September, the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender civil rights organization, reacted to a string of suicides by calling on the Obama administration to speak out and to push all schools to implement anti-bullying policies.
The suicides included a 13-year-old California boy who hanged himself from a tree outside his home after months of bullying. A 15-year-old Indiana youth hanged himself after being called a "fag" over and over again, and a Rutgers University freshman jumped off a bridge after his roommate secretly made a webcast of him being amorous with another male student.
The bullying issue has been a hot one in statehouses, with 11 states already passing anti-bullying laws based on sexual orientation and gender identity: Arkansas, California, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Vermont and Washington.
Last month, Obama hosted the first-ever White House conference on bullying prevention, inviting participants from across the nation.
"If there's one goal of this conference, it's to dispel the myth that bullying is just a harmless rite of passage or an inevitable part of growing up," Obama said. "It's not."
Maggie said she was feeling optimistic these days, particularly with the president taking up her cause.
"He's the power over everyone in the country, and he obviously has a lot of say in what goes on," she said. "So if he stands for something, then it's likely a lot of other people will follow in his footsteps."
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