This story has been updated.
In its first vote affecting gay people since the U.S. Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage, the Senate Tuesday rejected a federal prohibition against discrimination and bullying in K-12 public schools based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Fifty-two Senators voted for such a provision, while 45 opposed it. But Senate rules required 60 votes, and the measure fell short.
Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), the sponsor of the amendment, had made an impassioned argument that gay and transgender students needed the same federal protections as other historically persecuted groups.
“If a black child was referred to by a racial slur at school, would we say kids will be kids?” Franken said on the Senate floor as debate began Monday. “If a Jewish student got beat up because he wore a yarmulke to school, would we wave it off and say boys will be boys? If a shop teacher told a female student she didn’t belong in his class, would we be fine if the school just looked the other way? No, we would not. In fact, there are federal civil rights laws that are specifically designed to stop this kind of conduct.”
Franken displayed photos of three youngsters who committed suicide at ages 11, 13 and 15 after being relentlessly bullied and ridiculed by classmates.
One of them, Seth Walsh, a 15-year-old from Tehachapi, Calif., endured years of anti-gay harassment at school, Franken said.
“By seventh grade, taunts and verbal abuse were a constant part of Seth’s day,” he said. “Students called him faggot and queer. He was afraid to use the restroom or to be in the boys’ locker room before gym class.” His grades dropped and he grew depressed and withdrawn. His mother asked school officials to intervene “but her pleas were brushed aside,” Franken said.
“And in September of 2010, Seth hanged himself from a tree in his family’s backyard,” Franken said. “He was 13. Seth left a note expressing his love for family and friends but also his anger at the school.”
“This amendment would simply provide LGBT kids with the same legal remedies available to other kids under our federal civil rights laws,” Franken said.
But Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the education panel and a former education secretary under President George H.W Bush, urged his colleagues to vote against the amendment, calling it a federal intrusion into matters best handled at the local level.
“There’s no doubt bullying or harassment of children based on actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity is a terrible problem . . .,” he said. “But the question is, is this best addressed by the local school board or the national school board in Washington, D.C.?”
Alexander, the co-author of the main bill to replace No Child Left Behind, has been arguing for months that Congress needed to cede control over K-12 education back to the states.
He called Franken’s amendment “well-intentioned” but said it would lead to “costly lawsuits,” which prompted Franken to jump to his feet.
“This isn’t about lawsuits, this about schools doing the right things when parents ask. We have the same protections granted to kids by virtue of their race. That wasn’t a local issue, that was a federal law we had to pass. Same thing with Title IX — that’s why we won the World Cup,” he said, referring to the federal law that required schools to provide girls with equal access to athletics.