Expand civil rights law

At issue | Various articles, columns on suicides of gay teens

On Oct. 27, 2005, the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights voted unanimously to endorse the passage of legislation requiring heightened scrutiny, corrective action and reporting by teachers, principals and other school employees regarding instances of harassment and bullying of students.

However, the legislation eventually passed by the Kentucky General Assembly on this issue in 2008, House Bill 91, was substantially weakened as a consequence of the removal by the General Assembly of specific language pertaining to harassment and bullying that targets students based upon protected classifications such as race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability, sexual orientation or gender identity.

Existing laws should be strengthened through the addition of specific prohibitions, corrective actions and reporting requirements regarding harassment and bullying that is based upon a student's race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability, sexual orientation or gender identity.

Moreover, the Kentucky Civil Rights Act should be amended to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, housing and places of public accommodation.

Because public schools are places of public accommodation, these amendments would require school districts to take immediate corrective action to prevent the harassment and bullying of students based on sexual orientation and gender identity, in the same way school districts are currently required to prevent harassment and bullying based on race, color, religion, national origin, sex or disability.

News regarding suicides in 2010 calls attention to the plight of students who are subjected to harassment and bullying based on their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity:

■ July 9, Justin Aaberg, 15, of Andover, Minn., hanged himself in his room after having reportedly been a frequent target of bullies mocking his sexual orientation.

■ Sept. 9, the body of Billy Lucas, 15, of Greensburg, Ind., was found dead in a barn at his grandmother's home, where he had hanged himself after having reportedly been tormented for years because other kids thought he was gay.

■ Sept. 13, Cody Barker, 17, of Shiocton, Wis., took his life after incidents of taunting, resulting in the third gay teen suicide in Outagamie County since May 2009.

■ Sept. 19, Seth Walsh, 13, of Tehachapi, Calif., who was openly gay and who suffered years of relentless bullying, was found unconscious and not breathing after attempting to hang himself. He died after 10 days on life support.

■ Sept. 22, Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi, 18, of Ridgewood, N.J., jumped to his death off the George Washington Bridge, just days after his college roommate broadcast live images on the Internet of him having a sexual encounter with another man.

■ Sept. 23, the same day he told his parents he was gay, Asher Brown, 13, came home from school and shot himself in the head after enduring what his mother and stepfather said was constant harassment from four students at his middle school in Houston, Texas.

■ Sept. 28, Raymond Chase, a 19-year-old openly gay sophomore from Monticello, N.Y., who was studying culinary arts at Johnson and Wales University in Rhode Island, committed suicide by hanging himself in his dorm room.

These tragic and heartbreaking reports must call the General Assembly and the Commonwealth of Kentucky to quick action. Kentucky cannot afford to lose even one of its valuable young people to bullying and hateful treatment.

Not one Kentucky parent or family should ever have to face such a needless and devastating loss.

On June 2, 2008, Gov. Steve Beshear adopted Executive Order 2008-473, which returned sexual orientation to the commonwealth's equal opportunity policy, and added the protected classification of "gender identity."

On June 19, 2008, the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights unanimously adopted a resolution commending Beshear for this action, and further calling for Kentucky to pass a statewide fairness law that adds "sexual orientation" and "gender identity" as protected classifications within the Kentucky Civil Rights Act.

On Feb. 19, 2009, following the appointment of four new commissioners, the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights unanimously called for the amendment of the Kentucky Civil Rights Act to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, comparable to the legal protection that already exists in Jefferson County, Fayette County and Covington.

It is time for our state to step forward to protect our children, our students and our families by putting in place clear laws that will address and correct bullies and their backward, destructive behaviors.

Kentucky, a fair and secure-minded commonwealth, must have zero tolerance for bullies within its boundaries and on the properties of its educational institutions.