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By Lara S. Kaufmann, Senior Counsel & Director of Education Policy for At-Risk Students at the National Women's Law Center
Cross-posted from NWLC's blog

Last week, the U.S. Senate passed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) with strong bipartisan support. If ENDA becomes law, employers across the nation will be barred from discriminating against gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender workers because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. This is a major step forward for LGBT rights and shows just how far our country has come.

But we can’t stop there. While the Senate has taken a step to end LGBT discrimination in the workplace, there is no federal law that explicitly prohibits the same kind of discrimination in public schools. School districts across the country have been keeping LGBT students out of athletics programs. Censoring Gay-Straight Alliance groups. Cancelling prom rather than letting a student bring her girlfriend to the dance.

The situation is especially urgent due to the shocking levels of harassment and bullying LGBT students face every day. The 2011 National School Climate Survey [PDF] found that nearly eight in ten LGBT students have been victims of bullying at school. In elementary school, LGBT students are four times more likely [PDF] than their classmates to say they want to stay home from school because they fear for their safety. And according to the Centers for Disease Control, LGBT students are more than twice as likely as their peers to attempt suicide.

Our nation’s civil rights laws protect students from discrimination and harassment based on their sex, race, and disability status, but there is no federal law that explicitly prohibits discrimination against LGBT students. Fewer than twenty states have laws that address LGBT discrimination and/or harassment in schools. Only six states prohibit bullying on the basis of a student’s association with other LGBT people.

That is why the Student Non-Discrimination Act (SNDA) is so important. SNDA would prohibit elementary and secondary public schools from discriminating against students based on their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. It would also prohibit discrimination against students based on their association with LGBT people, including parents, friends, and classmates. If SNDA becomes law, LGBT students will get the education they deserve free from threats of violence and harassment.

The Senate took an important step toward ending discrimination in the workplace by voting to support ENDA. But we can’t allow discrimination to continue in our schools. No student should be afraid to go to school because of who he or she is. Students facing discrimination every day don’t have time to wait.

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