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Federal action urged after suicides

Lisa Neff, Staff writer

Federal action is being advocated as activists campaign for new and improved tools to counter bullying in schools.

The push comes in the wake of at least six gay-related suicides since the start of the 2010-11 school year, including a Wisconsin teen who advocated for a gay-straight alliance, a Rutgers University student outed in an Internet video, an Indiana teen who hung himself in his family’s barn, a California boy who hung himself in his back yard, a Texas kid who shot himself and a Rhode Island University student who hung himself in his dorm room.

On Oct. 12, more than 70 organizations urged Congress to pass the pending Safe Schools Improvement Act and the Student Non-Discrimination Act.

The Safe Schools Improvement Act would require schools that receive Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act funding to implement comprehensive anti-bullying policies.

The Student Non-Discrimination Act, modeled after Title IX, would provide nationwide comprehensive prohibition of discrimination in public schools based on actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.

The organizations also endorsed the Make It Better Project, a video-focused effort intended to inspire LGBT youth on their darker days and to educate youth and adults on how to counter school-based harassment.

“Our community has suffered a terrible loss in the past month,” Carolyn Laub of the Gay-Straight Alliance Network, which launched the Make It Better Project, said Oct. 12. “We can’t afford to wait another day and lose another life to the epidemic of anti-LGBT bullying in our schools. This is the moment for all of us … to do everything in our power to make schools safer.”

Several days earlier, at the Human Rights Campaign’s annual gala in Washington, D.C., senior presidential advisor Valerie Jarrett said in an address that the White House is advocating federal action.

“On behalf of President Obama, I want to make clear that this administration is firmly committed to working with you and other advocates,” Jarrett said. “For we all have to ensure that we are creating an environment in our schools, our communities, and our country, that is safe for every person, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.”

She cited work in the U.S. Department of Education, which created a federal task force on bullying and, in August, held the first National Bullying Summit.

The Education Department also has “reinvigorated the office for civil rights to help stop harassment in our schools based on race, disability, sex – and bullying of LGBT young people who may not conform to gender norms,” Jarrett said.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Health and Human Services Department has announced a National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention that brings together public and private partners.

“And it’s going to make sure people have access to help, and to resources when they are in crisis,” said Jarrett. “One of its specific goals is preventing suicide in at-risk groups, including LGBT youth.”

Tammy Aaberg of Anoka, Minn., was in the audience at the HRC dinner. Her son Justin killed himself in July.

Aaberg said she was aware of one incident of bullying against her son, but she “had no idea how horrible it was and I’m learning that this harassment happened in the company of teachers.”

The mother said she had wanted “Justin’s legacy to be that he’s the last gay child to take his life because of bullying.” He wasn’t.

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