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Miami’s Ros-Lehtinen introduces anti-bullying act to protect gay students

Becky Collins says that just after her 15-year-old gay son, Zach, was badly beaten inside a Ohio high-school classroom, the principal asked what could be done to change him.

“They wanted my son to change, not the children who are torturing him daily, shoving him into walls and lockers and touching him in places you shouldn’t touch another person,” Collins said Thursday, the same day U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, co-sponsor of the Student Non-Discrimination Act (SNDA), which would prohibit schools with public funding from discriminating against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth.

"Schools should be places where our kids can learn and thrive, and that are free from persecution and harassment," the Miami Republican said Thursday. "LGBT students are often verbally harassed due to their sexual orientation. It is important that we strive to make sure that LGBT students enjoy safety as all children do.”

Ros-Lehtinen and U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, a Colorado Democrat, said they have modeled SNDA on Title IX, the 1972 federal civil rights law that prohibits sex discrimination in education.

“This bill would establish a comprehensive federal prohibition on discrimination in public schools based on actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity,” said Polis, a gay congressman who unsuccessfully tried to pass SNDA in 2011. “It would also provide meaningful and effective remedies for discrimination in public schools based on actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. ... Hatred has no place in the classroom and every student should be able to go to school free from harassment and violence.”

In Central Florida, 14-year-old Bayli Silberstein, a bisexual eighth grader, is fighting her school district to establish a Carver Middle School gay-straight alliance club.

“We tried to start one last year and our principal said no — no extracurricular clubs. But they already had some clubs: they had a Christian club at our school, they had bowling clubs,” Bayli said Thursday.

This year, she tried again. “The new principal said she had to submit it to the school board. They made a really big deal of it and tried to cancel all extracurricular clubs for any middle school in the county,” Bayli said.

The Lake County School Board has dropped its proposal to cancel all clubs and will vote Monday on a policy whether to allow gay-straight alliances, according to the ACLU.

Eight of 10 LGBT students said they experienced harassment at school because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, according to a 2011 nationwide survey of more than 8,500 students ages 13 to 20, Polis said.

“We need to protect kids at school regardless of what adults think about the different ways that people live their lives,” said Polis, who with his partner is raising a son born in 2011.

Ros-Lehtinen, a former schoolteacher, is generally regarded as the most outspoken Republican in Congress on LGBT equality issues. She first spoke up more than a decade ago, when her children were in high school and long before her daughter, now 27, came out as a transgender man, Rodrigo Lehtinen.

The congresswoman spoke of “the devastating impact’ bullying and harassment has on LGBT students.

“They’re so vulnerable to harassment and bullying,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “Without the protection that they need, it can lead to suicide and at the very least diminish the educational results.”

She continued: “We hope that every legislator, whether they’re Democrat or Republican can look at this bill in a sensible way and realize that this should be a class of folks that need protection. Discrimination against LGBT students in public schools across this country is an unacceptable, but daily reality.”

More than 100 House members have already signed on with Polis and Ros-Lehtinen. The entire South Florida House delegation in on-board, except U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami.

“We urge our congressional colleagues to get it passed,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “If you think ... we’re going to get this done in a few months, you’ll be disappointed. We’re optimistic we can move hearts and minds. The bill, it’s something that will change people’s lives.”