School Safety Politically Hijacked: Civil Rights Masked As Anti-Bullying Laws? Part 1

Posted by on September 9, 2010

The battle between Focus on the Family and GLSEN raises a number of questions, issues, and concerns  specifically on their debate, and more so in the broader advocacy for federal anti-bullying laws, policy, and funding. 

In my last post entitled, School Safety Politically Hijacked? Gay Rights vs. Christians, I highlighted an increasingly heated battle between Focus on the Family, a Christian conservative organization from Colorado, and the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), a New York-based organization advocating to redress inequalities stemming from sexual orientation and gender identity/expression issues.  Today, I’ll put forth some questions and observations based on this debate.

Looming Questions on Special Interest Advocacy Agendas

A number of questions and observations immediately come to mind as I have watched Candi Cushman, education specialist from Focus on the Family, and Eliza Byard, GLSEN’s executive director, debate in the national media:

  1. Focus on the Family and GLSEN apparently have a decade-long battle which appears to go beyond bullying issues. There clearly are fundamental social and political beliefs, philosophies, and agendas in conflict here, specifically around the issue of homosexuality.  It is concerning to me that school safety is being drawn into a broader political battle.
  2. GLSEN frequently advances its arguments by citing data.  But it’s often GLSEN-sponsored, generated, or affiliated data, surveys, and research. GLSEN boasts that it has its own in-house researchers and has conducted its own data surveys. Focus on the Family also has researched cases where they express concern of the taking away of parents rights through the introduction of curriculum and programs into public. In-house data from advocacy groups is often looked upon with suspicion as to its objectivity, especially when it is presented as the primary source for arguing a public policy and funding interest.  People monitoring this issue and attempting to make informed decisions might also be interested in any recent independent research with similar findings which has been conducted and peer-reviewed by academicians not affiliated with any particular advocacy group.
  3. The bills before Congress framed under “anti-bullying” and “school safety” appear to be civil rights bills (more on that in my next post). To create new civil rights laws under the guise of “school safety” and “anti-bullying” begs the question of whether such efforts to address bullying and school safety will actually unify or divide and fragment efforts to insure safety for all students.  It also begs the question: Is the real goal “school safety” and “anti-bullying,” or the advancement of broader social and political special interest group agendas?
  4. First Lady Michelle Obama has taken on a national campaign against youth obesity. Given that obesity is one of the top, if not the top, reasons why children are bullied, should there be a special protected class in a federal anti-bullying law for obese children?  How about children with red hair and freckles who are bullied and harassed?  And also don’t forget kids who wear glasses, kids who have physical disabilities or learning impairments, kids whose clothing and shoes are less expensive and attractive than those of other students, etc. — they, too, are bullied and harassed. In other words, while the advocacy underway now is to create a protected class via enumeration of LGBT language (“sexual orientation” and “gender identification”) into federal law, what about the other subgroups of bullied children?  Why create a protected class for one group of bullied students and not all?  What if obese children are not enumerated into law — does that make their bullying less worthy of awareness and action than LGBT students?  And why do we need a federal law when local school district policies, along with existing criminal and civil law, already exist to address bullying behaviors? Can’t a teacher address inappropriate behavior inconsistent with school policies and student conduct codes without a federal law requiring him/her to do so? Or are there reasons for targeting schools which would meet other objectives of the advocates?
  5. Why are schools being targeted by LGBT advocates? Are LGBT youth not also the victims of bullying and harassment in the broader society, and not just in schools? Are they not harassed at malls, shopping centers, community parks, recreation centers, entertainment complexes, etc.? Why not advocate for laws to protect this class throughout society instead of just in schools?
  6. Would gay rights interests not be better served by simply addressing these issues under a law clearly identified by a proposed civil rights law applicable to the broader society, rather than masked to a great extent as “bullying”?  If those advocating believe so strongly in the cause, why not openly call it a civil rights law and advance it accordingly? Framing it as “bullying” suggests that presenting the issues under the guise of school safety and anti-bullying is necessary in order to move it forward because calling it a civil rights law would garner more resistance.
  7. Focus on the Family believes that GLSEN and others are using anti-bullying laws and school safety as a back-door approach to introducing curriculum, professional development training for educators, and related teachings and activities on LGBT and homosexuality into public schools. While there is clearly a long-standing philosophical and social belief battle between FOTF and GLSEN, it is fair to say that there are legitimate questions as to the broader goals and expectations advanced by GLSEN beyond simply a federal “anti-bullying” law.

In a September 28, 2009, article in the Huffington Post entitled, “Colliding Realities in America’s Middle Schools,” GLSEN Executive Director, Dr. Eliza Byard, puts forth her beliefs on what she believes is a “clear path to creating a safer school climate”:

 “I suppose the good news here is that there is such a clear path to creating a safer school climate. Over time we have seen signs of improvement in school climate in those schools that haven’t shied away from this issue and have taken action – instituting explicitly inclusive anti-bullying policies that are clearly articulated to the full school community; providing training to school staff to ensure that all students are safe and supported at school; supporting student efforts to speak out about these issues and improve school climate through GSAs; and using curricular materials that accurately and appropriately reflect LGBT people, history and events.”

Dr. Byard also referred to the “Safe Schools Improvement Act” legislation introduced by Congresswoman Linda Sanchez as “our bill” during a recent interview on CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360.  So does this mean the Safe Schools Improvement Act was written by GLSEN?  I know firsthand Congresswoman Sanchez has zeroed in specifically on LGBT interests in her effort to advance the Safe Schools Improvement Act (more on that later, if needed).

While FOTF has its own battle and differences with GLSEN, if you put FOTF aside there is still room for valid questioning and discussion of whether the proposed Safe Schools Improvement Act and related anti-bullying advocacy is seen as a first step by GLSEN to address a broader social and political agenda. There is a strong perception that it is, and until that is cleared up, the motivations and intentions of GLSEN and other gay rights advocacy groups risk being looked upon by many with speculation.

8. There are also questions as to the motivations, intentions, and directions behind the redefinition of school safety by the U.S. Department of Education and its skewed focus on “school climate, bullying, and incivility.”  Kevin Jennings, the Assistant Deputy Secretary of the Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools, is the founder and former executive director of GLSEN.  Mr. Jennings has openly acknowledged from day-one that bullying and climate are his primary emphasis in this capacity.  The Department eliminated $295 million in Safe and Drug Free Schools state formula grants to local school districts (which funded a variety of drug and violence prevention activities) effective July of this year, and is proposing $410 million in FY 2011 skewed towards “school climate” surveys, bullying, and incivility.

It is worth noting that Mr. Jennings, in his advocacy role heading GLSEN, created what GLSEN then named their National School Climate Survey in 1999 and continued it until 2007.  This GLSEN National School Climate Survey focuses narrowly on LGBT experiences in schools.  The 2007 report notes in its introduction (page 3 of the report, page 24 of the whole PDF document):

“In 1999, GLSEN’s founder Kevin Jennings understood the need for national data on the experiences of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender1 (LGBT) students in schools and launched the first National School Climate Survey (NSCS). At that time, the experiences of LGBT students were under-documented and nearly absent from national studies on adolescents. Such data were vital for demonstrating the crucial need to improve school climate for this population of students. Since that first survey, the need to understand and document the experiences of LGBT students nationwide has continued and GLSEN is committed to conducting the NSCS on a biennial basis.

GLSEN’s National School Climate Survey remains one of the few studies to examine the school experiences of lesbian, gay and bisexual students nationally, and is the only national study to include transgender students. The Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS), a biennial national survey of adolescent risk behaviors by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which includes questions about school-based victimization, does not include questions about LGBT identity or same-sex attraction or same-sex sexual behavior. However, certain states (e.g., Massachusetts, California) and localities (e.g., Seattle, Chicago) have added questions to the YRBS that allow leaders in the field of education and public health to understand how the experiences of LGB students in school might differ from other students.”

It is understandable why some question the intentions of the U.S. Department of Education’s focus on “school climate” given the professional advocacy and interests of the person heading this office, and why that person has made a radical shift in federal school safety definitions, focus, policy, and funding.  This is not a personal attack up Kevin Jennings.  It simply points to the fact that there are legitimate questions as to the intent and scope of federal policy and funding given the head of that office’s past advocacy focus, and given the call for national “school climate surveys” is almost identical in language to that which he created at GLSEN to focus on LGBT experiences in schools.

Will federal policy and dollars now be used in part or in whole to create a broader national data focusing on LGBT issues which, up until now, was not in federal data and was only primarily collected independently as a private, non-publicly funded project by GLSEN under Kevin Jennings’ direction?   Maybe.  Maybe not.  I have no knowledge of what is Kevin Jennings’ mind, intentions, or ultimate goals.  But I do know these are questions many are asking privately, and most (aside from those with clear social and political anti-Jennings agendas) inside the D.C. Beltway do not have the political courage to ask out loud. 

9. Focus on the Family supports an alternative anti-bullying policy.  It would appear this was proposed to provide an alternative to those laws and policies supported by GLSEN and other gay rights advocates. I argue that no new bullying policy or law is needed (see next post with My Take), and existing school policies along with criminal and civil law provide the tools to address behaviors defined as bullying and harassment. FOTF appears to be supporting another “model policy” largely to avoid being labeled as supporting bullying, a tactic which some advocates may like to employ against those who don’t support anti-bullying laws. Instead of debating the facts, they attack the person.

These are a few powerful questions and issues to ponder.  In my next post, I’ll share my take on the overall debate.

Ken Trump

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