This column contains a correction.
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) released an education bill today that included a number of reforms from the Student Non-Discrimination Act, or SNDA, which are designed to reduce incidents of bullying in schools. Spearheaded by Sen. Al Franken (D-MN)* and modeled after Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, SNDA would establish the right to an education free of harassment on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in primary and secondary schools. Moreover, if signed into law, the bill would allow students who have been bullied to seek legal recourse, and it would authorize the federal government to withhold federal funds from schools that condone the bullying of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, or LGBT, students.
SNDA is not only important because it addresses the widespread epidemic of bullying, but also because it would be a critical first step to curtailing some of the grimmest disparities associated with discrimination at such a young age—namely LGBT youth homelessness. Consider this: Although LGBT youth comprise 5 percent to 7 percent of overall youth, an overwhelming 40 percent of all homeless youth are LGBT. Family rejection is the leading cause of homelessness among these youth, but an additional 26 percent leave home because they feel they have nowhere else to turn, which is only plausible when their schools and peers are hostile to LGBT students. Moreover, harassment and discrimination in schools exacerbate family conflicts over a youth’s sexual orientation or gender identity and increase the chance of homelessness.
In addition to ensuring that schools are safe and inclusive spaces for all students regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity by passing SNDA, Congress can also help prevent LGBT youth homelessness by directing existing homeless-youth programs to specifically target LGBT youth and exploring new options to lower the number of LGBT youth living on the street. Here are three other bills members of Congress can enact this year that would help keep LGBT youth off the streets.
Pass the Safe Schools Improvement Act
The Safe Schools Improvement Act, or SSIA, would require schools receiving federal funding to implement policies to ban bullying, including on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. It would also require states to report bullying and harassment data to the U.S. Department of Education. Sens. Robert Casey (D-PA) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) introduced the bill in the Senate and Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-CA) introduced the bill in the House earlier this year.
Whereas SNDA establishes the legal rights of victims of bullying and the federal government’s response to schools condoning LGBT discrimination, SSIA requires primary and secondary schools to take a proactive role in preventing harassment and discrimination by adopting and enforcing antibullying policies, which include LGBT youth.
Importantly, the Safe Schools Improvement Act also explicitly states that schools cannot allow the threat of bullying and harassment to deter students from participating in school programs and extracurricular activities. In-school and afterschool programs have the potential to prevent homelessness for LGBT youth by providing a positive environment and deterring youth from turning to substance abuse and engaging in other risky behaviors to cope with peer rejection. Discouraging youth from engaging in these behaviors alone reduces the risk that these youth will become homeless at some point in their lives.
Research also shows that abstaining from risky behaviors and performing well at school can reduce family conflict at home, which is the primary reason that LGBT youth experience homelessness. Among LGBT students, 30 percent report missing at least one day of school in the past month because of safety concerns, and students who are bullied frequently report lower grade-point averages. Researchers have also found that LGBT youth are more likely than other youth to use tobacco products than their heterosexual peers, largely to cope with rejection from their families and peers. By adopting and enforcing antibullying policies, schools can help alleviate behaviors associated with family conflict and rejection such as substance abuse and poor academic performance, thereby decreasing the odds of a child becoming homeless.
Incorporate LGBT youth into the Homeless and Runaway Youth Act reauthorization
Another way Congress could help LGBT homeless youth is by directing existing homeless-youth programs to specifically target LGBT youth. The Runaway and Homeless Youth Act, or RHYA, awards grants to public and private organizations assisting homeless youth. The bill, which is reauthorized every five years, makes no mention of LGBT youth despite their disproportionate representation among the homeless-youth population. This year, Congress should explicitly incorporate LGBT youth into the Homeless and Runaway Youth Act.
Congress should, for example, adopt a general statement of nondiscrimination for the bill that includes sexual orientation and gender identity. This would prohibit grant recipients using RHYA funds from discriminating against gay and transgender youth, who are frequently mistreated or turned away when they seek help from these organizations simply because they identify as LGBT.
The Runaway and Homeless Youth Act is up for reauthorization this year, and the House and Senate are expected to introduce their respective funding bills for fiscal year 2014 in the coming weeks.
Reintroduce and pass the Reconnecting Youth to Prevent Homelessness Act
In addition to battling bullying in schools and improving existing programs for homeless youth, Congress should also seek new solutions to end LGBT youth homelessness. The bulk of the Reconnecting Youth to Prevent Homelessness Act aims to improve training, educational opportunities, and permanency planning for older foster-care youth; and reduce homelessness of all young people, LGBT or not. But one part of the bill in particular calls on the secretary of health and human services to establish a demonstration project that develops programs that improve family relationships and reduce homelessness specifically for LGBT youth. A growing body of research from the Family Acceptance Project suggests that this family-centered approach is one of the best ways to support LGBT homeless youth, so targeted support for these programs has the potential to significantly decrease rates of homelessness.
The Reconnecting Youth to Prevent Homelessness Act was introduced in an earlier session of Congress by then-Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) but has not yet been reintroduced into the 113th Congress.
Passing the Student Non-Discrimination Act is important in its own right because it addresses the harassment and discrimination that has become such a prevalent experience for LGBT youth. But when considering SNDA, members of Congress should also take into account the ways that bullying contributes to extreme and dangerous circumstances for these youth, particularly among those who become homeless at some point in their childhood. The second- and third-order effects of ending discrimination when it begins—during adolescence—must be on the forefront of policymakers’ minds as they consider passing the Student Non-Discrimination Act.
Katie Miller is a Research Assistant for the LGBT Research and Communications Project at the Center for American Progress.
*Correction, June 5, 2013: This column listed the incorrect state for Sen. Al Franken. He is the junior senator from Minnesota.