Capitol Alert

64 percent of California LGBT students are bullied. A new bill would train teachers to help

Anti-LGBTQ bullying is an epidemic in California schools: 64 percent of such middle and high school students surveyed by the California Department of Education last year reported being bullied. Nearly half had seriously considered suicide.

Now, California lawmakers have re-introduced a bill aimed at giving teachers and school districts tools and funding to help lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning students.

Assembly Bill 493 is co-sponsored by Assemblyman Todd Gloria, vice chair of the California Legislative LGBT Caucus, and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond. The bill would require every county office of education, school district and charter school to provide annual in-service training to all teachers grades seven to 12.

The training would focus on “strategies to increase support for LGBTQ pupils and thereby improve overall school climate,” according to the bill language.

“The bullying and name calling I experienced in school as a young gay kid is still a reality for today’s LGBTQ youth. No child should have to experience that. Students should feel safe, accepted, included, and supported in their school,” Gloria said in prepared remarks. “Equipping educators with resources to better support LGBTQ students will create a safer and more inclusive environment for these students to be successful.”

LGBTQ students are at a much higher risk for depression, drug and alcohol abuse and skipping class, according to a report from the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children’s Health, which relied on data from the state.

That report found that 61 percent of gay, lesbian and bisexual students reported feeling so sad they stopped doing usual activities, compared to 29 percent of straight students; 45 percent of queer students surveyed abused alcohol or drugs, compared to 22 percent of straight students; while 50 percent of queer students reported skipping school or cutting class compared to 35 percent of straight students.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people ages 10 to 24, with LGBTQ youths three times as likely to consider taking their lives and five times as likely to have attempted suicide, according to the advocacy group The Trevor Project.

“Every child deserves a caring and supportive school environment, and we must continue to work towards closing disparities in health, mental health and academic outcomes for our LGBTQ students,” Thurmond said in prepared remarks supporting AB 493.

It was Thurmond who sponsored an identical bill, AB 2153, in the last legislative session, when he was still an assemblyman. That bill passed the Assembly and Senate, but fell to then-Gov. Jerry Brown’s veto pen.

In his veto remarks, Brown wrote that current law already requires the California Department of Education to monitor local schools to ensure anti-discrimination policies are in place.

“If local schools find that more training or resources on this topic is needed, they have the flexibility to use their resources as they see best,” Brown wrote in his September 2018 veto statement.

Equality California Executive Director Rick Zbur responded to Brown’s veto: “While we respect and appreciate Governor Brown’s desire to give schools ‘flexibility,’ the status quo is failing California’s LGBTQ students and denying too many a shot at success.”

Equality California also is a co-sponsor of AB 493.

Samuel Garrett-Pate, spokesman for Equality California, called Brown “the most pro-equality governor in California history” but said his group disagreed with Brown’s stance on local control.

Garrett-Pate said that this time around, the bill has many strong allies: Gloria is a senior member of the Assembly, Thurmond is superintendent of public instruction. And California’s new governor, Gavin Newsom, “has not just been an advocate (for LGBTQ issues) throughout his career, but has been a champion.”

Garrett-Pate said that he expects AB 493 to pass with strong bipartisan support. He said that while California might be bitterly divided on some education issues, such as charter schools, student health and well-being “is an issue that can unite everyone across the spectrum.”

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Andrew Sheeler covers California’s unique political climate for the Sacramento Bee. He has covered crime and politics from Interior Alaska to North Dakota’s oil patch to the rugged coast of southern Oregon. He attended the University of Alaska Fairbanks.