Why Won't Congress Protect LGBT Students From Discrimination? Al Franken Breaks It Down

'As we’ve made all this progress on LGBT issues, we’re still facing an epidemic of bullying,' Sen. Franken tells MTV News.

Former "Saturday Night Live" star and Minnesota Senator Al Franken has been working for five years on the Student Non-Discrimination Act. Though the bill would make discrimination against LGBT students in public schools unlawful, he hasn't been able to gather enough support within the Senate to get it to pass.

On Tuesday (July 14), the effort was narrowly voted down in the Senate. A day later, MTV News caught up with Sen. Franken to ask why it's been so difficult to get LGBT teens basic legal protections.

"Unfortunately," Franken said, "As we’ve made all this progress on LGBT issues, we’re still facing this epidemic of bullying. ... 30% of of LGBT kids report missing a day of school in the last month because they’re afraid. You can't learn if you dread going to school. And we know that 40% of homeless teenagers are LGBT.

"Part of that is because they’re turned out by their families, but part of it is also that they’re dropping out of school because they can’t take it anymore."


The Late Show with David Letterman

Al Franken on The Late Show with David Letterman

"Some of my friends on the other side of the aisle don't agree with the Supreme Court's [marriage equality] decision," Franken told MTV News. "So they're maybe a little bit grumpy about this," he speculated about why the SNDA bill failed to pass. "It's like they've just had it on the whole issue [of LGBT equality], so maybe they weren't ready for this.

"I tried to make the point that this is about protecting kids [and teens], and that we have a responsibility to do that not just as senators, but as adults," Franken added. "A majority of senators agree with me. So we'll get this done at some point."

Franken said the senators offered other reasons for voting against the amendment.

"Chairman [Lamar] Alexander made the argument that this is the federal government being the National School Board for the country as opposed to letting this policy be decided by local school boards," Franken recalled. "I don't buy that argument at all."

Franken told us that this is ultimately a civil rights issue, and we already have lots of federal laws in place to protect kids and teens from being discriminated against in school on the basis of race, nationality, gender and disability. Local school boards aren't allowed to just decide that it's okay for schools in their district to start allowing discrimination against all female students, or all disabled students, or all Latino students -- that's why federal protections exist.

"I've identified a civil rights problem, and I've identified a solution that's the same as what we've done with federal law in the past to protect kids equally," he said. "Obviously, there are local school boards that aren't doing the right thing, and these kids are suffering as a result.

"I'm actually a little puzzled [about why yesterday's amendment didn't pass]," Franken continued. He pointed out that in the last Senate, they were able to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act with a vote of 64 to 32. ENDA essentially extends the same protections to adults that SNDA would give to students.

"I tried to make that point yesterday," Franken said, "and I did get a number of the Republicans who voted for ENDA with me to vote again yesterday -- but not all of them."

It's worth noting that although ENDA passed as an amendment in the Senate, it was later rejected by a panel in the House of Representatives. And federal protections against workplace discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation still don't exist for adults, either.

Franken said he first started working on the bill in 2010 after an epidemic of bullying in one county in Minnesota that led several LGBT students to take their own lives. He also pointed out that some of his other colleagues who voted against the amendment have said that they don't like that the bill would allow an LGBT student or their family to sue if the school refuses to take action in once a hostile environment is reported.

"In case after case with these suicides," Franken said, "the parents have called to say, 'my kid's being bullied, my kid is in danger, my kid is being taunted and harassed, won't you please do something about it,' and the principal or the administration or the school district have done nothing. So [SNDA] would give them the right to sue ... which is the exact same right that other kids have under these other civil rights bills. It's the same thing. And there's no other way to enforce it."

He said that young people can help get the bill passed by helping to spread the word and raise awareness about the importance of this issue. We can also contact our senators to encourage them to support the Student Non-Discrimination Act.

Despite yesterday's failure, Franken remains hopeful that the bill will pass. "We're making progress," he said. "We'll get there."

In the meantime, you can find additional resources about what to do if you see or are experiencing anti-LGBT bullying through the It Gets Better Project or the Trevor Project.

For More Information On Anti-LGBT Bullying, Visit Look Different.

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